Don't Put Your Future on Hold

August 2nd, 2020 - 4:27pm

Head shot of femaleIt's never too late to change the direction your life is headed.

Alumna Lori Davis credits College of Marin (COM) as the birthplace of Sanzuma, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing access to healthy food sources for students in the Bay Area’s northern peninsula. Her journey proves that it’s never too late to learn new skills, change careers, and make a positive impact.

Davis had a successful career designing kitchens and baths when she developed a desire to make a long-term social and environmental difference in her community and beyond. When thinking about future directions, she didn’t envision that the path from COM would traverse Mexico and Central America, UC Berkeley, and where she is today—leading a successful nonprofit in Marin County.

She always considered herself an environmentalist and sought to minimize the negative impacts of the design and construction process on the environment. She decided to go back to college in 2009, when her youngest of three sons was in high school. She enrolled at COM into classes related to environmental design and sustainable architecture. 

When she almost had enough units to transfer, she applied to UC Berkeley and was accepted on a full scholarship. Davis graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor's degree in agrobiodiversity at age 49, proving that it’s never too late to change the direction your life is headed. 

“Because of College of Marin, I was fully prepared to transfer, especially in science. And, that was important, because my major was all science.”

Equity issues had constantly been on Davis’ mind, and during her time at COM she was active in the Environmental Action Club. Serving as vice president of the club, she developed the idea for a solar oven program, where ovens would be delivered to small villages in remote regions of Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico. 

Davis founded Sanzuma in 2012 while at UC Berkeley where she worked with her son Cameron to raise enough money to make the first trip to Costa Rica, Guatemala, and El Salvador. During this five-week trip, she and Cameron began delivering the solar ovens with help from a close friend who had fair-trade connections to the villages. The ovens enabled villagers to cook food, purify water, and earn an income without relying on wood, electricity, or propane. 

As the program expanded, she found that similar challenges existed in Marin County. Being true to Sanzuma’s mission, “your health should not be a reflection of your economic status,” she turned the organization’s efforts to the development of a School Farm-to-Cafeteria program. Since 2013, she led the conversion of many local school gardens into producing farms, pairing this with nutrition classes and educating the students on growing their own food.

Looking back, Davis says the courses she took at COM were the catalyst for Sanzuma. What she remembers most about her time at COM is the dedication of her instructors across different disciplines. No matter what the subject, they encouraged her, provided guidance, and offered help along the way. Two instructors that stood out to her were her environmental geography instructor, Andy Peri, and her statistics instructor, Jacek Kostyrko.

“[Mr. Peri’s] passion made me really passionate about how I could protect the environment, not only in design, but in my personal life. That is what motivated me to want to teach others, because they might not know how to do it, and I wanted to show them.”

So, once an academic counselor told her she was only a few math and English classes away from getting an associate degree where she could transfer to get a bachelor’s degree, she decided to move forward with her education. 

While she was enthusiastic to pursue her new dreams, she was worried about the math classes she needed to take, as math was not her strong suit. She found her statistics instructor at COM was incredible with communicating statistics, and dedicated to his students’ success.

“[Attending College of Marin] completely changed my life. My trajectory is completely different. I was designing kitchens and bathrooms in AutoCAD, and now I’m working with the community helping them learn about good nutrition and sustainability.” 

What started as an idea to bring solar ovens to communities in Central America, Davis’ Sanzuma has developed into a thriving local organization. It has expanded to the point she has realized the need to shift business models to remain sustainable. She’s now working to transition Sanzuma from direct service to consultation work to teach others what the organization does. 

Her passion for this organization that was launched from Instructor Peri’s environmental geography class fit into her desire to ensure good nutrition was accessible to everyone, regardless of their economic status. This stemmed from losing her entire family to heart disease, including her only sibling. She deeply desires to see her community and have access to and knowledge of healthy foods.

Sanzuma has somewhere between 75-100 partnerships with local organizations to continue to build their outreach and help the community. And, she’s still creating innovative models to expand their reach. 

Currently, over half of their efforts are partnering with Community Action Marin (CAM) to set up a sustainable, organic food system for twenty-one local preschools. They have hired a registered dietitian to work with Davis to develop nutritional meals from what is grown on Sanzuma farms. These locally-sourced meals will be cooked from scratch and sent out to local preschools and Head Start programs feeding a thousand children every day. According to Davis, this is “groundbreaking, because I don’t know of any other schools doing this!”

Davis is persistently pursuing funding for Sanzuma, a task which takes ninety percent of her time. She believes Sanzuma could become even more successful with more stable funding, and is currently searching for a large company or celebrity who would want to help promote the organization for the next three to five years.

Lori’s journey demonstrates that you don’t have to feel like you’ve got everything figured out before you take that first step to enroll in college. And, you don’t have to stick to one thing once you start. It’s possible, and likely, that the experiences and connections you make in college will guide you in an entirely different direction than you could have ever expected.

Find out more about Lori Davis’ organization at Start—or continue—your journey at College of Marin; find out how at