We are proud to share that our own Tometrius Paxton was recently named a “Walmart Community Playmaker!” The Golden State Warriors and Walmart have partnered to highlight and recognize members in the community who are making a positive impact. We sat down with Tometrius – aka Tee – to learn more about why community work is so important and what this awards means to him.
What inspires you to give back to our community?
My passion started pretty late in my life. As I’ve gotten older and had life experiences, I became really conscious of my impact, of who I am and how I can help empower others around me in my same situation, community, and neighborhood. That’s what drew me to community work and helping others. It’s not about yourself, but what you can do for someone else. You kind of live vicariously through their successes, and of seeing them do the same exact thing in someone else’s life.
I grew up in in the South, which was an entirely different upbringing and way of life than here. Growing up in the ‘70s in Arkansas, then moving out here to East Palo Alto – I was 15 years old – it was two separate lifestyles. The experience shaped me into the person that I am today. It was a good, but pretty difficult thing.
What was different between here and there?
Growing up as an African American in the deep South and then coming out here and trying to apply the teachings from one culture that was all I knew…it was a big culture shock. How relaxed things were here, from parenting to community involvement. In the South, everyone is family. You’d be walking down the street and a lady wouldn’t even know you, but she knew your family. She’d say, “Hey, come on in and get something to eat.” Or they would discipline you if they saw you doing something wrong and your parents would fully support them. Then coming out here in those days, you’re on your own. You have to make your own way and hit a lot of bumps. Everything was more fast-paced, with more people focused on their own thing. It was a little shock for me to catch up to that.
I still have some of those community values that I got in Arkansas ingrained in me today. People that I deal with in my life, whether it’s children or adults, they’re like, “How come you’re like that?” and I’m like, “You have to adapt and change.”
How did you end up working at Second Harvest Food Bank?
It was a funny journey to Second Harvest Food Bank. I was working with the Salvation Army of Redwood City, one of our partner agencies. I worked with them for over 3 years, overseeing their food distribution program every Thursday. I was coming to the Food Bank every single week to pick up food. The Food Bank said, “Hey, would you like to do this on a bigger scale and develop these programs?” So I came to work at Second Harvest in 2007.
I am currently the Partnership Manager, Team Leader on the Focused Services team which is responsible for offering community youth organization partnerships within the Second Harvest Food Bank partner network – the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, afterschool programs. I’m responsible for designing and implementing our school pantry and college pantry rollout, as well as our medical partnerships where we provide healthy foods to patients diagnosed with a medical condition. We’re creating a model that connects vulnerable medical populations to our food bank services and healthy food.
What do you love most about working at Second Harvest Food Bank?
I absolutely love the impact we’ve having on peoples’ lives and it’s so intricate, what we do. Folks on the outside, they just see, bam, food there, boom, to the people, but all of the work and the great people that it takes to get that food there, behind the scenes… All of the collaboration that it takes is amazing to me. It feels good to work with people who aren’t really focused on the accolades of it. They don’t want to be known as, “I’m the one that makes it happen.” We just go about doing our work because we believe in it. That keeps me coming back to the Food Bank every single day. That’s really important to me as a person who tries to teach kids the same thing.
Why should people care about hunger in our community?
It’s prevalent and affects the growth and development of people in the community. Through the work that I’ve done at school pantries, I’ve learned a lot about the kids getting in trouble. Some of these kids were labeled as bad kids when actually they had food insecurity issues at home that no one was privy to. And when the kids came to school, they were hungry, agitated, upset… Food nourishment isn’t only for the body; it’s for the entire makeup of that individual. The connection to food is one of the universal lifelines that we need to invest in. I don’t think that we should be struggling to provide food to people when there’s so much waste on this planet. It just doesn’t sit well with me.
Tell me about your other community work.
Ten years ago, I started a youth development program called Paxton Sports Academy in East Palo Alto. I play basketball and I wanted to give kids an outlet, something they can have fun doing, but could also use to access a higher education. I wanted to give this opportunity to a kid that’s already in a very adverse, challenging environment, particularly where I’m from in East Palo Alto. It was really important for me to put my arms around these kids and say, “This doesn’t have to be your reality.”
And so it led me to start with a couple of kids. They didn’t know anything about basketball outside of the basics. To play at a high level takes a lot of discipline. These youth have the opportunity to foster in another avenue to think about colleges and careers. To focus on academic education, I incorporated an academic program to make sure I monitor each kid’s progress report – it’s mandatory that they give that to me every semester.
I also incorporated a character development program which I think is the best part because it teaches kids to think about a situation before they get into it. We put them through situations, like if you’re a great athlete and really good at school, but you’re hanging around with buddies that you grew up with that want you to drift off and do what they’re doing. The data shows that usually when kids are put into that situation, without any intervention, it’s very likely that they’ll make the wrong decision. I put them through that at a very early age – 9, 10, 11 – and they go through that program every year. That way when they’re in high school, they already have those critical tools to address those situations and still maintain relationships. There are levels of understanding about how that relationship needs to work and it requires both sides to be in agreement to get a positive resolution. That’s something I’m very big on teaching my kids – accountability and being able to lead – leaders aren’t born, they’re made.
As part of this award, you’ll be recognized at an actual Warriors home game. What are you looking forward to at the game?
We don’t really get to go to these types of games. I’m just looking forward to going and enjoying the sport that my daughters and I love. It’s an opportunity to sit down and enjoy being in that atmosphere, see some of the guys that worked hard to get there. I can see the kids that I work with in those guys there. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to talk to those professionals and see if someone will say, “Can I come and talk to your kids and let them know, hey, this is what it takes?” It would confirm some of the things that I tell the kids because they get to a point where they say to me, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we hear it.” If I could just have a guy that really made it say, “This is what it is,” that would be great.
I’m still in shock – I didn’t have a clue this was going on. I hope that it’s a great example for the kids and the community that I’m there to represent. I don’t know how, but some of my parents scrounged up some money to buy some tickets so they could go to the game and see it with their kids, and I’m like, ” Wow, that’s a lot of money that could be for your rent.” It’s something they wanted to do and all I could say is, “Thank you.”