Community Spotlight: Heather Dueñas

Before COVID-19, a day in the life of Baldwin Center’s Director of Community Engagement Heather Dueñas involved working seven days a week while still making time to cook dinner and take her four kids to their sports commitments.

When asked in a Google Meet call how her life looked like mid-March after shutdown, she didn’t know where to start.

She had kids in school, she was finishing her degree in Education at Oakland University, she was student teaching at Alcott Elementary in Pontiac, and she was administering two areas of the Baldwin Center, a non-profit organization in Pontiac. Although her official duty there is to oversee community engagement, her main role during the pandemic became having to step up as interim kitchen manager.

By the time she took this second position, food donations at the Center had almost doubled. At their peak, they were serving at least 100 more lunches than usual.

“But then what I noticed that happened is that Pontiac came together,” Dueñas said. “That is when through support of community engagement, the MyCovidResponse team began to deliver food to people at home, to keep them safer.”

Dueñas said that after that the number of clients for lunch at the Center started to slowly decrease, going back to the average 180 to 250 lunches they used to serve a week.

She said that many clients have voiced their appreciation for the fact that the Center “doesn’t ask questions.” For instance, people can pick up as many lunch bags as needed, which has generated important conversations with volunteers about the importance of not having preconceived notions on who needs donations or not.

She stresses the fact that the Center offers people a break compared to what she remembers going to food pantries was like.

“They would ask for a birth certificate, social security cards, ID, and all of that paperwork. I understand that that is because their funding was grant money,” she said. “And I know that now but back then I just wanted a box of macaroni and cheese to feed my kids.”

And she knows that the gentleman that has 11 children and grandchildren or the lady that comes weekly and asks for 14 lunch bags to bring to the kids in her neighborhood would probably also have a difficult time being served in many other places.

So what Dueñas also started to do was calling people and signing them up to the MyCovidResponse database at a time where the network was serving 2,000 meals a week. She wanted to make sure everyone was getting access to the resources.

A Tennessean from birth, Heather Dueñas calls Pontiac her home now. It is where she works, shops, and where her children go to school. It is also where she made connections that led her to become her family’s first-generation college student by graduating from Oakland University.

Having graduated with honors after many late-night assignment sessions, she plans on having a big celebration in her backyard once it is safe to do it. Although her daughter is afraid that even their big yard won’t be able to fit the whole city of Pontiac.

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