EL CENTRO — When Sister Maria Luisa Valdez came to the Imperial Valley decades ago, she never knew she would touch as many lives as she has. But she felt called to help the poor when she visited an elderly couple, opened their refrigerator, and saw only a single can of tuna inside.
“That’s all they had, one can of tuna, and from that moment I began to visit families to find what they needed,” Sister Valdez said. “Right away, I contacted the (Imperial Valley) Food Bank and they would send boxes of food.”
That was the start of Sister Valdez’s more than 25 years directing the Sister Evelyn Mourey Center (SEMC) in northern El Centro, one of the Imperial Valley Food Bank’s former food distribution sites, and of her years working closely with the food bank.
Sister Valdez said she is thankful the food bank “never said no to me” when she would come asking for food for needy families.
Throughout her years working at the SEMC, Sister Valdez helped to bring food to the needy, as well as develop community-building classes, according to a press release. These included English as a Second Language, typing, culinary, and U.S. citizenship classes.
Under her leadership, the center became a 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt charity in 2010. By May 2013, she had retired from her administrative work at the center and continued her advocacy as director emeritus on the SEMC’s board of directors.
Sister Valdez served on the Imperial Valley Food Bank’s board of directors from 2012 to 2017 at the invitation of Executive Director Sara Griffen.
The food bank held a farewell luncheon in honor of Sister Valdez on July 8, wishing her a happy retirement as she prepared to move to her order’s motherhouse in Huntington, Ind., in mid-July.
The departure of Sister Valdez and her long-time friend and collaborator, Sister Maria Adela Amoroso, marks the end of a 90-year presence of their order, Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters, in the Imperial Valley.
Griffen said, as soon as she heard Sister Valdez was leaving, she felt the food bank should “recognize this woman for all the things she did here,” calling it “hard to see Sisters in this kind of ministry leaving the Valley.”
“She knew everyone, she knew their issues … she was just a really good minister to the people she served,” Griffen said. “Having someone like her lets us not forget the mission as we’re doing it. She’s just been a constant voice for the hungry.”
Griffen said the Imperial Valley Food Bank serves about 5,000 families — between 20,000 and 25,000 people — each month in Imperial County, more now than before the COVID pandemic.
It was Sister Valdez’s advocacy for needy families and her hard work ethic that earned her the moniker “the El Centro Angel” with locals, said Lourdes Cienfuegos, a former worker with the Sister Evelyn Mourey Center who credits Sister Valdez with helping her to learn English.
Alba Sanchez, director of programs for the food bank, described Sister Valdez as “one of those people that, when you meet (her), you know why she’s here. Her mission has always been to help.”
“There’s going to be a void here that is going to be very hard to fulfill,” Sanchez said. “Sister touched many lives here in Imperial County.”