Seeing needs in central Iowa's Latino community, Zuli Garcia steps up to fill the gaps
Zuli Garcia holds this belief strongly in her heart: No child should go to bed hungry, especially in the United States.
Garcia has always been a go-to person in Des Moines' Latino community. If there was a funeral and the family couldn't afford the service, Garcia would have a fundraiser. If someone was going through a hard time, she'd show up with groceries.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, she noticed her community was struggling. Hardworking families were fighting to put food on the table while quarantining and had no help to secure basic necessities.
So she started fundraising to buy and deliver food and toiletries to those she knew were in need. Her work was noticed by an Eat Greater Des Moines executive who reached out to partner with Garcia to supply her with food that the USDA was distributing to cities around the country at the time.
Garcia spent the majority of 2020 delivering food from the back of her pickup truck to Latinos in need all across the metro. But she didn't want to stop there.
"I encouraged her because she was thinking about creating an entity for this organization to continue beyond the pandemic," said Jessica Trinidad, a friend of Garcia's. "I remember us talking about moving forward, and I remember her vividly brainstorming about her name."
And so Knock and Drop Iowa was created. On its one-year anniversary, in March 2021, the organization had officially reached nonprofit status and secured a physical location at Franklin Junior High. Since moving into the multi-use space in February, Garcia's organization has served almost 30,000 households.
For her ongoing work to provide essential resources to the Latino community in central Iowa, Garcia is one of the Des Moines Register's 2022 People to Watch.
Most recently, the nonprofit received a $25,000 grant from the Hispanic Federation, under the condition that the organization use the money within 90 days. In that time, Garcia provided hot meals to hundreds of people and paid rent for 10 families in dire need of assistance.
"My dad always taught me that you don't complain about things; you actually get involved and make a change and make a difference," Garcia said. "And so I thought, you know … if nobody's doing it, I'm just going to do it."
'I was ready to fight that battle with anyone'
Garcia attributes the drive to help her community to her parents. She recalls stepping up and taking care of her half-sisters when her mother struggled with addiction. Not wanting to leave them behind to live with her dad, she stayed to make sure they were taken care of.
"I remember having to make those lines for Toys for Tots … I remember having to go to the liquor store and telling the owner to front us eggs and milk because my mom had screwed up all the money," Garcia said.
She also recalls stories from her dad about times he fainted in high school because he'd gone three days without eating. He survived because a teacher fed him a meal every day.
"To listen to my dad and the stuff we went through with my mom because of her drug addiction is what I think gives me the fire within," she said. "When I see the smiles from the kids in my community, I remember being that kid."
The most important aspect of Knock and Drop for Garcia is that it specifically targets the Latino community, which she believes is often shut out from receiving aid. Families in the metro face barriers such as requirements for government IDs or services provided only in English, she said.
At Knock and Drop, all volunteers speak Spanish, the food provided is culturally appropriate and no government ID is required.
"There is no other service like Knock and Drop right now," said Maria Alonzo-Diaz, an advocate at Polk County Crisis and Advocacy Services. "While there might be some services available to families, Knock and Drop is a very culturally specific program and so, therefore, makes a very unique and an excellent resource for our community."
Alonzo-Diaz often refers families to Garcia through her position with the county and says many have expressed gratitude in how resourceful the nonprofit has been for their families.
"I think that one of the things that makes the program is her knowledge, her experience in the community," Alonzo-Diaz said. "Her just truly being part of the community makes her have profound knowledge of the scarcity in resources that we have in our community, and so she's trying to fill that void."
During the spring and early summer, Garcia expanded her offerings to include the COVID-19 vaccine. Partnering with Latinx Immigrants of Iowa and Hy-Vee, Garcia hosted vaccination clinics where Knock and Drop vaccinated more than 900 Latino Iowans.
A huge number of volunteers allowed the clinics to offer translated documents and field questions that had been unanswered for those who didn't have health care or were undocumented, Garcia said.
"As someone in the Latino community that grew up with parents that were undocumented, I always had to stand up for them," she said. "So I was ready to fight that battle with anyone because it's about health care for all."
Growing services beyond food assistance
What's next for Garcia as she enters 2022? She hopes a lot.
First, she's setting her sights on additional vaccine clinics so that her clients can have access to booster shots. She hopes to offer flu shots, as well.
She also hopes to expand resources to teens. Knock and Drop already offers volunteer hours for Latino youth, where teens help set up for food pickup and events. Recently, the nonprofit applied for grant scholarships to give the students when they graduate from high school. Garcia says she's hoping to find out by the end of the year if Knock and Drop was chosen as a recipient.
"If we do get it, we're hoping to show them this how we're going to give back to our community," she said. "We want those young Latino kids to volunteer, have good grades, give it their all and we will thank them with a scholarship on behalf of Knock and Drop."
As the nonprofit grows, so does its need for space. So in addition to running Knock and Drop and working full time, Garcia is on the lookout for a bigger, affordable operating center.
"Or maybe, you know, one day we can get our own building — that's really my ultimate goal," she said. "Instead of paying rent, we're paying our own mortgage for a building that can be a one-stop-shop for our Latino community."
About Zuli Garcia
LIVES: Originally from California, but she's lived in Iowa for 26 years.
CAREER: City of Des Moines
FAMILY: Husband, father and husband's family
About the Des Moines Register's 2022 People to Watch
It has become a Register tradition to close out each year and open the next by introducing readers to 15 People to Watch — individuals expected to make an impact on Iowa in the coming year.
This year's nominations from readers and our journalists totaled nearly 70 people and posed hard decisions for staff members charged with winnowing them to just 15.
The final 15 include people in business and the arts, those who work with small children and climb mountains, those who argue for a living and those who deliver much-needed care. We hope that you are as inspired by reading about them as we were in profiling them.