Unknowingly, 2 Sonoma Valley Rotary Clubs name Maite Iturri 2023 Paul Harris Fellow

The longtime Springs leader earned the Paul Harris Award from both the Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Springs Rotary Clubs — an unplanned surprise. “The fact that both of the clubs recognized her in the same week is a testament to what she does in the Valley.”|

Whether it’s helping students who are struggling to learn English, or supporting families who need food on the table, Maite Iturri is known for looking out for the overlooked members of Sonoma Valley.

As a co-founder of Comida Para Todos/Food For All, a former beloved principal at El Verano Elementary School and chair of the Springs Municipal Advisory Council, Iturri is known for her ability to uplift those around her.

In addition to feeding families, Food For All “is trying to grow the leadership within the Latinx community, and most of the people involved in this are women, they’re moms. We want them at the table, we want them at the decision-making table. So, this is an opportunity for them to have some input and some influence into the kind of support that their community needs—that our community needs.”

For all of her efforts, two of Sonoma Valley’s three Rotary Clubs recognized Iturri with one of their highest honors this month. It was a sweet coincidence that she was selected as the 2023 Paul Harris Fellow award by both the Rotary Club of Sonoma Valley and the Rotary Club of Sonoma Springs. Neither club knew that the other had also selected Iturri, and she was more surprised than anyone by the double recognition.

The Sonoma Valley club honored her on Wednesday, Jan. 4, during its regular meeting at the Sonoma Golf Club. The club invited Iturri for lunch and she thought it was just that—lunch.

“Dave Meeks, who was a past president of the Rotary and was a volunteer at El Verano where I was the principal for many, many years, got up and he said ‘Oh, I have this award to present—Paul Harris,’ and I thought ‘Oh how nice somebody’s gonna get an award.’ And then he said ‘Maite Iturri,’“ Iturri said.

Prior to that meeting, the Springs club had asked her to give a presentation about her work with Comida Para Todos/Food For All, an all-volunteer nonprofit that distributes food and other basic necessities to community members in need. Iturri is one of 12 founding members of the organization.

On Jan. 12, as she began setting up at the Finnish American Home Association (FAHA) she saw her family and some friends walk into the room. Then, a familiar scene began to unfold. Club member Mara Kahn surprised her with the Paul Harris Fellow recognition. With tears in her eyes, Iturri gave another speech, thanking everyone she could remember in the moment, which was easier the second time with one acceptance speech already under her belt.

“The fact that both of the clubs recognized her in the same week is a testament to what she does in the Valley,” Kahn said. “It’s really quite amazing.”

Iturri spent 25 years working in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, before taking a position with Petaluma City Schools in 2021. During her 15 years as principal at El Verano Elementary School, she created a Family Resource Center to provide parents with mental health services, among other accomplishments.

“A school is a safe space for many people, it’s an access point to services and resources, particularly in communities that may be more vulnerable and underserved,” Iturri said.

Getting parents involved in their children’s education was always a goal for Iturri, after growing up in San Francisco with an immigrant father who struggled to engage with her schooling. As an educator and principal at a school where the student population is overwhelmingly Latino and from low-income homes, removing barriers and creating an accessible campus was high on her list of priorities.

“I do believe in a community approach to educating children, that our schools mirror our community,” Iturri said. “If our community is healthy and well, and our families are healthy and well, our schools will be healthy and well.”

Before her role as principal, Iturri taught in bilingual positions in Napa and in classrooms at Sonoma Valley High School, Altimira Middle School and Flowery Elementary—where she helped to start Sonoma’s first dual immersion program. She also served as the district’s summer school principal at the high school and the K-12 summer coordinator. Over the last decade of her tenure, she raised over $7 million in grants for the district and her school.

“Maite was the heart and soul of El Verano school...,” Louann Carlomagno, former Sonoma Valley Unified School District superintendent, told the Index-Tribune in 2021.

After leaving the local school district, she remained closely intertwined with the Valley, especially the Springs.

Iturri joined the Springs MAC when it launched in 2019, and became chair in 2020. She has pushed for agenda items such as “Conversation on Racism” in the wake of George Floyd’s death and, this month, presentations on local mental health services.

Her work with Comida Para Todos/Food For All began after the 2017 fires, but the work got even more involved in the pandemic, when thousands were laid off and needed help getting meals on the table. Fiscally sponsored by the North Bay Organizing Project, the organization relies on its team of 60 volunteers — nobody, including its 12 leadership members, gets paid. The organization has fed an estimated 5,000 families, approximately 22,500 people, since its creation, but its true impact on the Springs can’t be counted.

“I think the way that we hear that it makes an impact is by people saying ‘thank you,’” Iturri said, “... people said to us ‘Oh my god, I had no idea what a big difference having that bag of tortillas, or that thing of coffee or those diapers made, until I didn’t have it.’”

For Iturri, it all comes back to education; whether it’s children getting what they need at school, or parents receiving the tools required to create a healthy home environment, Iturri believes it all leads back to local schools.

“When people are struggling for basic necessities: food, shelter, physical and mental health, that shows up in kids when they’re in the classroom, and they can’t be their best selves if their tummies aren’t full or if their worried about where they’re going to sleep, or if they’re worried about things happening in their house,” Iturri said.

Rotary Club members have been able to take part in Iturri’s impact and see its effect first hand. Kahn, who nominated Iturri for the award with the Springs club, remembers bringing her dog, Fenway Bark, to join her while reading to third-graders at El Verano when Iturri was principal.

“The things that she believes in are the things that I believe in,” Kahn said. “She’s just always a great resource any time you need advice on the Springs, she knows it. I just thinks she’s one of the most invaluable people to the community.”

Both presenters noted Iturri’s full spectrum of community service in her recognition, especially as a leader.

“With our Paul Harris fellow recognition, our aim is to recognize a local leader who has had a positive impact on Sonoma Valley, and has through their service, made a difference in their community,” said Charles Goodwin of the Rotary Club of Sonoma Valley. “Maite, to us, was such an obvious example of such a leader.”

The Paul Harris Fellow recognition originated in 1957 as a way to acknowledge Rotarians who had made sizable donations to the clubs. In 1979, clubs nationwide adopted a new trend to recognize the work of non-Rotarians, and instead the international service clubs make donation of $1,000 in the name of its chosen honoree to make them eligible for the award.

"It was a great pleasure to be able to honor Maite for her contribution to our community of the Springs. She has done so much for our children and the community members with food insecurity, I am happy that we were able to recognize her achievements," Sandra Otter, charter president of Rotary Club of Sonoma Springs, said.

Iturri said the awards were humbling for her—two times over.

“When you’re acknowledged and recognized for something, it’s a pretty emotional reaction because I don’t do this to be given an award, and to be given the same award within a week of each other, was quite shocking and very humbling,” Iturri said. “There are just so many people that deserve this recognition within our community.”

Contact the reporter Rebecca Wolff at rebecca.wolff@sonomanews.com.

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