By Hannah Esqueda
Photo via Claudia Corchado
Merced, Calif. — Recently named “Volunteer of the Year” by the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce, Claudia Corchado remains surprisingly humble about her role in the community.
“I think the other lady just didn’t show up that day,” she jokes while downplaying the work she put into winning the title.
Corchado’s volunteer portfolio is impressive. Over the last 17 years she’s sat on more than a dozen local boards for nonprofits and community groups including the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Merced’s former LGBT Center.
Currently, she pitches in as a coach for her nieces’ softball team, does volunteer photography and senior portraits for local foster youth and serves as board member for the Valley Crisis Center.
The last cause is particularly close to her heart as Corchado was a teen parent who spent several years finding her way out of a toxic relationship.
“I tried to make a relationship work, which was with my son’s father, which was a very abusive relationship and so it took me a little while to snap out of it,” she said.
After finding power in her personal life, Corchado also began to find empowerment in her work. In 1999, she took a job with the Central Valley Opportunity Center (CVOC) issuing freeze vouchers to farmworkers and families affected by the harsh weather that season.
“I never knew there were jobs out there where you’re actually helping people and getting paid,” she said. “Before that I had worked at banks and I hated all the extra policies and fees that were impacting families.”
Over the last two decades she continued working in and around Merced County, serving as a job developer with CVOC, leading a teen pregnancy prevention program, even doing a three-year stint as executive director of the Merced County Boys & Girls Club.
Through it all Corchado says her motivation has been to give back to the community where she grew up. Born in Ciudad Juarez, her family moved to Dos Palos soon after her birth.
“I grew up on the westside as they say, so I’m a proud Bronco,” she said.
In 2006, she began working with Cultiva La Salud, formerly Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program, to improve health outcomes for local families.
As program manager for the nonprofit, Corchado works to mobilize local parents at Merced County schools. From leadership trainings to holding school boards accountable for student health outcomes, her work is driven by a primary focus to make Merced a better place for the next generation.
Recently she saw a victory with the introduction of specific water access policies in the Merced City School District [MCSD]. The district created a school wellness policy modeled off a request made by Cultiva La Salud for all students to have access to safe drinking water.
“We’re still pushing for all of our schools to have hydration stations because we want our children to have clean, cold water,” Corchado said. “When they do start installing them, we want [MCSD] to start at the older schools, which are the schools in South Merced.”
Other focus areas include identifying and creating safe routes to local schools, and Corchado has helped coordinate parents and communities to help develop safer walking paths for students.
A lot of it has to do with the poor infrastructure in rural and low-income communities, she said. Incomplete streets or sidewalk along rural roads, lack of crosswalks and bike lanes all contribute to a hazardous environment for children and their families walking to and from school.
“In Beechwood-Franklin we’ve seen success. The Winton elementary [project] over at Crookham Elementary School is another,” Corchado said. “They now have a beautiful, complete street with sidewalks and bike lanes because of the work we did with residents over there.”
Such projects are a success for her because they involve the input of residents and community members are actively engaged in identifying ways to improve their home. That kind of community connection is powerful and Corchado said her relationship to residents is among the most important piece of her work.
“I love that about our community and about working with people. I value the respect, the morals and the way Latino families raise their children the old-school way,” she said.
That old-school mentality is at the core of her work ethic as well, and Corchado said through the years she’s learned to remind herself that the hardest thing to do is “just get up and show up.”
“It’s hard to do sometimes but it’s so necessary. You do that and you see things get easier.”