Jefferson Awards for Public ServiceBy Sharon Chin

(KPIX 5) — Farmworker families are not feeling forgotten in the fields of the San Mateo County coast, thanks to this week’s Jefferson Award winner.

During a recent day off for farmworkers and their families, Dr. Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga was at work giving them free food.

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“I think about the hard work our immigrant community is putting in every day in this country, and that’s what keeps me going,” she said.

Hernandez-Arriaga started off serving Latino families pro bono as a clinical social worker when she discovered they needed more.

“Although they were suffering from depression, anxiety, stress, what they really need was to be visible. To have a space to celebrate who they were,” she noted.

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So in 2011, she founded Ayudando Latinos A Soñar, or ALAS for short. It means Helping Latinos Dream.

The nonprofit offers cultural arts, mental health, educational, and social justice programs for Latino families from Half Moon Bay to Montara.

Employee Cecilia Penaloza says since COVID-19, Hernandez-Arriaga’s now serving three times as many families – 1,000 each week.

“I think she’s a role model for everybody,” Penaloza said. “She’s really hardworking. She’s always looking for resources to help the community.”

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Volunteers have sewn 7,000 masks to protect coastal farmworkers on the frontlines of food production. And ALAS partners with community businesses to give free lunches to farmworkers every Friday.

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At the ranches, Hernandez-Arriaga helps meet other needs. When the pandemic hit, farm entrepreneur Serafin Avalos got stuck with hundreds of pounds of beans restaurants no longer needed.

So ALAS bought them to give to poor families and save Avalos’ business.

“I was very desperate,” Avalos said. “I was ready to give up but ALAS came in and started helping.”

ALAS employee Jorge Sanchez says Hernandez-Arriaga leads the way.

“Belinda has a big heart. She’s very noble and humble,” Sanchez said.

Hernandez-Arriaga is also an assistant professor at the University of San Francisco School of Education as well as a member of the Bay Area Border Relief Team, which helps families at the U.S. border seeking asylum from Mexico.

She also co-founded the Half Moon Bay Latino Advisory and founded the Latino Trauma Institute.

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So for serving the Latino farmworkers and their families on the North San Mateo coast, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Dr. Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga.