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May 6, 2009 > Union City's Women Behind the Scenes - Part I

Union City's Women Behind the Scenes - Part I

By Simon Wong

One of the commemorative items for Union City's 50th Anniversary is the Official 2009 Calendar depicting the community's Unsung Heroes.

April 2009 features women who have given many years of voluntary service.


Heidi Kitayama

Heidi Kitayama, aged 86, started to volunteer in her mid-50s when she began walking for the March of Dimes. She continued until her early-70s and saw many disabled children improve; some walked again.

She also raised funds for the American Heart Association and joined the Union City Lioness Club in 1972.

"I volunteer because it's something to do and helps one's fellow man. It makes me feel useful," she explained. "People should participate in their communities because it fosters a sense of belonging."

Mrs Kitayama has been in Union City since 1948 when there were mom 'n' pop stores. Bread came from a baker, meat from a butcher before Safeway arrived in 1970 and Union Landing in the early 1980's. When the City incorporated in 1959, the area was predominantly agricultural with tomatoes, sugar beet, apricots, cabbage and gladioli as the main crops.

For Mrs Kitayama, known affectionately as "The Martha Washington of Union City," the most exciting period in the City's history was when her husband, Tom, ran for Mayor and council member.

She points to good neighbors and the City's proximity to San Francisco, which is both close and distant enough, to recommend Union City as a place to live.

"Long-time residents keep the sense of community alive because it's a small town. I'm glad I live here because it's small-townish enough but not so small that Union City is ignored," she concluded.


Alvesa and Luisa Orozco

Alvesa and Luisa Orozco arrived in Union City with their family from Texas in July 1945 as young girls.

Their voluntary work began in the 1960's and 1970's. They felt the need to be active and campaigned for some of their friends who ran for office. The sisters wanted the best for their growing children and felt that Don Miller, Manuel "Shorty" Garcia, Leo Alvelais, Tom Kitayama, et al. would do a good job. These men helped the City develop and grow.

Besides politics, Alvesa raised funds for the Our Lady of the Rosary School which her sons attended. Luisa volunteered for Kaiser Hospice for five years, reducing her working hours so that she could spend more time as a volunteer.

Alvesa still lives in Union City. Luisa now resides in Pleasanton.

"Our lifestyles have changed; we're involved in different ways," says Alvesa who participates in her local church. Luisa volunteers at the Valley Crisis Pregnancy Center that assists young people.

"We had great fun and saw many school and community improvements," said Alvesa. "Voluntary work is a chance to give back; it's uplifting and creates a sense of peace and satisfaction," added Luisa.

These ladies feel that speaking up gives the community a voice and can make a difference. Involvement creates a sense of community.

"Since 1945, the population has grown. We've ethnic diversity. Decoto and Alvarado were incorporated as Union City. We've better infrastructure and amenities, a beautiful City Hall, excellent schools, churches and good links to the rest of the Bay Area," observed the sisters for whom the City's incorporation was the most exciting period.

The sisters agree that the City's sense of community is maintained by the older generation and continued by younger people who have remained.

"We're blessed to have grown up in Union City at such a special and wonderful time in our lives," said Alvesa. "It's everyone's responsibility to volunteer and it's important that everyone has a voice. Always respect one another and give back to the community," added Luisa.


Marcella Rodrigues

Marcella Rodrigues moved from Spain in 1921, aged four, to Irvington before settling in the Decoto area in 1933.

She learned to knit and sew in 1941 when she volunteered with the American Red Cross to make sweaters for soldiers during WWII and remained with the organization for a decade.

From 1945 to 1975, she and her husband, Al, the City's first Assistant Fire Chief, assembled Christmas baskets for two hundred families, annually. The American Red Cross, Salvation Army and schools provided names.

She founded the first girl scouts troop with Grace Lee, wife of Dr Lee, in the 1950's and was troop leader for five years. In 1950, she volunteered as an interpreter and administrator at the Well-Baby Clinic for five years.

Mrs Rodrigues spent two decades with Union City's vision-screening program from 1981, helping doctors test students in grammar and high schools.

From 1991, she was Secretary of the Senior Citizens for eight years and, with her husband, a Minister of the Sick for ten.

She also spent twelve years with the Salvation Army in Union City and Newark providing food and clothing and visiting the sick. She is a Charter Member of the Lioness Club and still a Lioness.

For Mrs Rodrigues, voluntary work created lasting friendships. "I have received more in return than I gave. People visit me daily. It's impossible to put a value on kindness. All I gave was time," she said.

"The City's now too big. Perhaps I'm being selfish but we knew everyone when it was smaller. There was a closeness that doesn't exist now. People sat on their porches after dinner or walked and visited with each other. We didn't have television in those days. My friends make it a great place to live.

"Volunteer! You'll be happy you do. It's good for morale and you make good friends," she said appreciatively.

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