We sat down with Cat Cvengros, our new vice president of development and marketing at Second Harvest Food Bank, to learn more about her. Cat’s most recent position was chief development officer at Social Advocates for Youth (SAY) in Santa Rosa. In addition to being a highly skilled fund developer, she is passionate about our mission to create a hunger-free community.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your professional life.
I served in the Peace Corps as a community health educator from 2004 to 2006. That had been a dream of mine since I was a teenager. It sounded like just the kind of thing I wanted to do—save the world and travel. Once I got into the Peace Corps, I understood that my passion was service. After I came home from the Peace Corps, I was in San Francisco and there was a moment when I was walking to some club South of Market, and there was a man sleeping across the sidewalk. His body took up the entire width of sidewalk. I remember lifting up my right leg and stepping over him. I felt awful. I realized right then as I stepped over this man and continued on my way that the dichotomy was so strong. It was then that I realized I wanted to work on the problem of homelessness.
That’s when I got involved with Committee on the Shelterless in Petaluma. I worked there as a grant writer for a year and I ran one of their programs for a year. I really got a sense of what poverty is. Poverty is a cycle. I come from poverty. Honestly, one of the things that I love about this work is I’ve been able to learn about how to stop the cycle—that’s what I’ve been doing. So it was a natural thing to go to Social Advocates for Youth. The CEO there is amazing. And at Second Harvest, the CEO was also part of my reason for coming. I love how Kathy Jackson is dynamic, fun-loving and whip-smart. I’m really happy to work with her and the awesome staff, and I’m committed to ending poverty—the work Second Harvest does is a natural fit.
Q: You mention that you come from poverty. How has that impacted you?
I remember when I was a child my mother had to sell the car to buy food. And another time when I was a little bit older, my stepmother spent my father’s coin collection to buy food. We often don’t talk about those things that really make us who we are, but there are times when it’s appropriate to share the struggles and the hardships and the trauma that we have experienced. It can transform a conversation and an understanding of an entire group of people. I feel like for anyone who’s had trauma growing up, the past becomes a prologue if you can actually get out of it. When I look at where I come from, that was a prologue to who I get to be now.
Q: Tell me a little bit more about your personal background—childhood, family, interests and hobbies?
I grew up in Jackson, Michigan and lived there until I was 14. It was a really tumultuous childhood, full of physical abuse and struggle, living primarily with my father and stepmother. I left home at 14, and after losing touch with my mother for many years, I found her living in Central Florida and I reached out. I remember the phone call very distinctly. I asked if I could live with her and she said, “Of course.” That was the moment when the genuine interest of one adult changed my life.
As far as hobbies, I do yoga, and I’m a little crafty. When I moved to California, I decided to make jewelry and hats because it seemed like a California thing to do. I’m naturally curious, so I’ll try lots of things. I like hiking and I love baseball—can I say whiskey-drinking is a hobby? This year, I’m learning about Japanese Whiskeys. Other than that, I don’t know how to juggle but I’d really like to learn because I hear a lot of kiwis come through the warehouse at Second Harvest—plus it’s a great skill to have! I have the bean bags for practice, but I’m not going to promise how well I’ll do.
Q: Could you talk about one of your biggest accomplishments?
Definitely the SAY Finley Dream Center in Santa Rosa! Many years from now, I’ll be able to bring my grandchildren to the facility and say that I helped build that. Within those walls, I know that we’re able to shelter hundreds of youth and give them an opportunity for a new life.
The Dream Center came about because about five years ago, youth homelessness had more than doubled in Sonoma County. It was right after the recession. Santa Rosa had—and still does have—the highest per capita rate of youth homelessness in the nation. This shook us to the core. At the time, we had over 1,100 young people sleeping outside and we knew that we had to act. We were able to start the capital campaign and we raised $9.8 million in 14 months, which was unprecedented for Sonoma County. The Dream Center has been open now for 13 months and I’m so honored I got to help make it happen.
Q. What do you find particularly exciting about joining Second Harvest?
Not only are we committed to serving more people at Second Harvest, we’re serving them better, healthier food, and providing more access to food. Second Harvest is a critical element to ending the cycle of poverty and we’re having a big and growing impact in Silicon Valley and beyond. I love that we continue to look at new ways to get better at achieving our mission—even if you are the best, you still want to keep getting better. This is an attractive work environment, because it’s in complacency that you end up losing as an organization, and as an individual. The commitment to constantly challenging yourself to make the world around you a better place is what makes this work fun and rewarding. That’s the philosophy of this organization. It’s why it has such a positive impact on this community, and it’s why I wanted to be part of this team.
Q: How has your work changed you as a person?
I think doing this work has taught me that it’s important to find joy in the darkness. What you have to tap into is actually not the darkness. You have to think about how to bring change to the darkness and find the hope in that process. We can get mired in the despair and then not do anything, but we really need to figure out how we can be part of the solution.
Q: What principles and values guide you?
I feel like it’s on every coffee cup now, but I really love what Gandhi said about being the change you wish to be in the world. That’s a guiding principal for me. And then there’s that poem by Erin Hanson. It’s often quoted, but I’ve always loved it. The poem goes, ‘There is freedom waiting for you / on the breezes of the sky / and you ask, What if I fall? / Oh, but my darling, / What if you fly?’ I think that if we want to be the change we wish to see in the world, we have to take risks and they need to be bold and that should feel scary. And I’m feeling it for real now because I’m leaving everything that is comfortable, but I feel like it’s the right thing to do.
Q: Anything you want to say to our clients, donors and volunteers?
The success of Second Harvest and the success of everyone we touch – our volunteers, our donors, our clients – is dependent on all of us working together. I firmly believe that the success of our clients is dependent on my success and the success of working with our donors. And I’m not going to be successful if our donors aren’t there and likewise our volunteers. It’s all so integrated. We’re all going to rise together by seeing past the darkness and finding the joy and hope in being part of the solution to hunger.
Q. So finally, tell us about your cat, Luther Furrbank.
Luther is a philanthropist. He donated to SAY’s Dream Center capital campaign and there’s a room there named in his honor. He’s the friendliest cat—kind of like a dog in a cat’s body. He’s actually a lazy, lovable beast that I let live with me. When I was working and getting my MBA, I was so busy, I felt badly for him, so I ended up getting him a cat to keep him company. Luther’s cat’s name is Fake Joe Lewis because when he plays, he kind of boxes. He’s not really Joe Lewis, and he’s not really my cat—he’s Luther’s cat—so we call him Fake Joe Lewis. You can find Luther on Instagram @lutherinreallife.