Kaitlyn Hartka dishes up hope in Mexico

Kate McHugh

Walking through the streets of Cuernavaca, Mexico, a small town about an hour outside of Mexico City, junior Kaitlyn Hartka has noticed the hardships of the people living there firsthand. Young children stand on the street selling candies and toys to make money for their families, and restaurants struggle to stay open during COVID-19. Although Hartka is used to seeing this when she visits her family almost every year, it does not make it any easier.

“By visiting Mexico so much, it really does open your eyes to how many people are less fortunate than you and are in such horrible positions,” Hartka said. “It’s been a really eye-opening experience to help me appreciate [where I live].”

Wearing a mask made in Cuernavaca, Mexico,
Kaitlyn Hartka models the product she is selling to raise money for their community

Remembering her past trips, Hartka decided to help the people there suffering from poverty, especially as hardships have increased from the COVID-19 pandemic. This past summer, she contacted Dine 11, an organization that helps provide food and supplies to people in various towns across the United States. Although Dine 11 had never opened a branch outside of the U.S., Hartka and her cousin who lives in Cuernavaca, Constanza Iturbe, showed the organization how important it is to help the people there.

“I thought that it would be really good to try and help these people because, in the town that we’re helping, there are no other charity organizations, and charity organizations in Mexico are almost non-existent,” Hartka said. 

Hartka and Iturbe worked with Dine 11 organizers for three months to set up the branch. Since it is international, Hartka and her team worked hard to make sure all of the legal precautions needed to help the people in Cuernavaca were in place before opening. Dine 11 project manager, Alexis Saenz, worked closely with the two cousins to set up the branch. 

“They’ve been super patient with us, and since it’s international, it’s been a stop and go [process]. We had to make sure everything’s nice and orderly, but they’re amazing to work with, and I’m just very grateful for their patience,” Saenz said. 

Another challenge the team has faced is COVID-19. Not only has it made things more difficult for the families living in Cuernavaca, but the rising number of cases in Mexico has made it hard for Dine 11 to help the families safely.

“We have to be really careful when we are handing out food because we don’t want any COVID-19 cases to come from us trying to help out these families. The challenge is making sure the families don’t come in contact with each other, that everyone is socially distant and that the food is packaged safely,” Hartka said.

Intricately designed masks brought from Cuernavaca, Mexico to be sold in Marin

In the past few months, Hartka and her team have helped the people in Cuernavaca by holding a food drive at the local school, giving out gift cards for people to buy food and supplies, and now Hartka is selling handmade masks from Mexico. Being the only member of the team from Cuernavaca, Iturbe values the difference she has made in her own community. 

“My favorite part is helping the families [in my community]. [We also get to help] the little kids, which is amazing for us,” Iturbe said. “We want to [be able to] make a big change and make people [in Cuernavaca] happy.” 

Hartka and Saenz enjoy connecting with members of the Cuernavaca community as well as small businesses during the pandemic. 

“We’re trying to help the local restaurants and businesses keep their lights on by buying meals [from them] and delivering them to frontline workers, community members and families that are in need of support right now,” Saenz said. 

Although her work in Cuernavaca is just getting started, Hartka is excited for the future of the Dine 11 branch. 

“Our long term goal is to grow and to be able to help even more restaurants and schools. Currently, we’re partnered with two restaurants and one school, so I think that once we get enough funding and enough recognition [we will be able to expand],” Hartka said.

If you would like to donate, visit  https://dine11.org/mexico/