Cover Story

Alberto Cortes retires from Mamas Kitchen after 2 Decades of Service

By Cesar A Reyes

Mama’s Kitchen was established in 1990 by Laurie Leonard a San Diego caregiver who was deeply concerned about her neighbors affected by the AIDS epidemic. Over time, she formed a group of volunteers to cook and deliver free meals to individuals who were unable to shop for groceries or cook for themselves due to the debilitating effects of AIDS. At the height of the epidemic, when even some hospitals were turning AIDS patients away, their volunteers came together to combat the stigma and ensure that those critically ill were receiving one of their most basic rights – nutritious food. In 1999, they expanded to serve clients’ dependent children when their delivery volunteers realized that many critically ill parents were sharing their much-needed nutrition with their children, who didn’t have enough to eat. Over the years, they have used their experience with AIDS nutrition to expand their Home-Delivered Meal Service to other critically ill populations.

Mama’s Kitchen strives to provide nutritional support to San Diego residents at risk of malnutrition due to critical illnesses such as HIV, cancer, congestive heart failure, type 2 diabetes, and chronic kidney disease. Together with hundreds of volunteers, businesses, and community supporters, Mama’s Kitchen strives to help their clients stay healthy, preserve their dignity, and keep their families together by providing, medically tailored home-delivered meals and nutrition education – all at no cost.

After serving on the Board of Directors of Mama’s Kitchen for 2 years, Alberto was hired as CEO in 2002 and has led the organization’s growth and commitment to the community with grace and determination. Now after twenty plus years, Alberto has announced his retirement. We sat down with him to ask him a few questions about the past, the present and the future.

Please tell us about yourself. 

Born in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, Herminio and Maria, the second of five children. My parents moved to New York City in 1954, during the largest wave of migration of Puerto Ricans to New York City in the 1950s, known as “The Great Migration”.  

We moved back to Puerto Rico when I was 15 years old. We lived in my parents’ hometown of Isabela, a lovely town on the northwest coast of Puerto Rico with spectacular beaches. My ancestors’ presence in that town dates to the early 1800s, maybe earlier. I graduated from high school and went to the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez campus. 

In 1979 I joined the US Navy to “sail the seven seas” (Village People’s “In the Navy” was a hit at time). I had the privilege of serving in the US Naval Submarine Force on a Permit-class nuclear-powered fast attack submarine. 

Even though I am currently single, I’ve had the joy of three long-term relationships – each of which made me a better person. 

What is your history with community organizations?

At a very young age, and throughout my formative years, my parents instilled a sense of commitment to the community. I was raised in era of “Think not what your country can do for you, think what you can do for your country”. Very soon after I moved to San Diego, in May of 1983, I became involved in the LGBTQ community. First with Dignity San Diego, an organization for LGBT Catholics. I also started volunteering at the San Diego AIDS Information Line, one of San Diego’s earliest responses to the AIDS epidemic and its impact on the Gay community. During my professional career I’ve had the privilege of working with local nonprofits, many of whom serve our LGBT community. These include: 

San Diego AIDS Project

San Diego Council of Community Clinics

San Ysidro Health Center (South Bay AIDS Project)

Family Health Centers of San Diego 

I have volunteered my time over the years with: 

San Diego AIDS Information Line 

San Diego AIDS Project 

Being Alive San Diego 

Christie’s Place

Mama’s Kitchen

McAlister Institute

San Diego Pride

Tell us about your time at Mama’s Kitchen

I served on the board of Mama’s Kitchen from 2000 to 2002. In July 2002 I was hired as executive director, succeeding my predecessor, Carolyn MacFarlane, who had successfully served in that role for eight years. During my tenure Mama’s Kitchen accomplished a number of things including: 

  • The expansion of our mission to include people with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and chronic kidney disease, while never diminishing our commitment to people living with HIV. 
  • Acquiring and renovating a building in 2011 that more than doubled Mama’s Kitchen’s capacity to serve the San Diego community. 
  • Growing the organization from 11 to 40 employees, increasing our fundraising capacity by more than three times from an annual budget of $1.7 million to $5.4 million, among other things. 
  • During my tenure Mama’s Kitchen became the largest provider of home delivered meals in San Diego County. 
  • Mama’s Kitchen has maintained a stellar track record in the community from the very beginning. 

Which accomplishment are you most proud of and why?

There are several accomplishments that I am grateful to be part of: 

  • When we expanded our mission to serve people with other health issues while continuing our commitment to serving people with HIV. 
  • Acquiring our facility in 2011. This provided Mama’s Kitchen the opportunity to increase the number of critically ill San Diegans served. 
  • Securing $6 million in California state funding, along with my colleagues from Project Angel Food (Los Angeles), Ceres (Sonoma County), Project Open Hand (San Francisco), for a pilot project to demonstrate the impact/value of medically tailored meals on people with congestive heart failure. 
  • Getting us through the COVID-19 pandemic without ever stopping our service AND keeping everyone coming in to work safe, thus, having no clusters of infection. 
  • My biggest accomplishment (and, really, this is a collective accomplishment) is improving the lives of thousands of San Diegans who would otherwise be vulnerable to malnutrition.

What are you most looking forward to during retirement?

I’m looking forward to some free time for more thinking, reading, and, most importantly, spending more time with the people that matter in my life. 

Can you convey the importance of Mama’s Kitchen to our community?

Mama’s Kitchen plays a very critical role in our community. Many people are impacted in positive ways: Those who receive; those who provide the services (both volunteers and staff); and those who provide the financial support to make it all happen. 

How can people get involved with the Mama’s Kitchen?

Mama’s Kitchen provides many opportunities for San Diegan to add to their sense of community purpose. Volunteer opportunities provide an opportunity for meaningful engagement in a community-like environment. Volunteer opportunities include delivering meals, helping in the staging area, and working in our kitchen, are but a few of the volunteer opportunities at Mama’s Kitchen. 

Financial gifts continue to be very important for the expression of Mama’s mission – they represent about 75 percent of the financial support received. Individual giving opportunities exist in many forms: Monthly giving (Bread and Butter Club), year-end contributions, planned giving (remember Mama’s Kitchen in your estate planning), matching gift from your employer. 

What advice will you give to the new Executive Director?

Not sure. It will depend. The next CEO (not yet identified as I write) will come with their track record, life experiences, and perspectives. I feel like my job will be to support them in having a successful transition into the organization. I will be all ears and answers. And I will certainly share my sense of the organization, its culture, history, current challenges, strengths, ideas about the future, and anything else that will help the new CEO successfully step into the role.   

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