Joanna Cervantes and Sunshine Place
Right Person, Right Place, Right Time
|Joanna Cervantes and Sunshine Place played a crucial role in
recovery after the gas-leak explosion
on Main Street in Sun Prairie in July 2018.
When Cervantes came to Sunshine Place, she came incognito as someone needing services to see how she would be treated by the volunteers. She did this for
several shifts of volunteers.
“I did it for five days,” Cervantes said. “And on all five days, I saw that different information was coming out depending on who was behind the desk. And so, it was
the way that I could gain insight on the non-profit without revealing who I was. The following week I came in and I said, ‘Actually I am the new executive director.’
That’s when I was really able to take hold of the organization. I wanted to get that understanding of what our clients feel and what they hear and what they learn
when they walk in through our doors. I was able to get that understanding of the agency without biases, just coming in with a blank slate. That was so fruitful. That
eventually led to the creation of our brochure that lists all of the programs that are here. What I really wanted to make sure was that the messaging that went out
through our volunteers is the same message to everyone with care and compassion.”
And then on July 10, 2018, Sun Prairie learned that Cervantes was the right person in the right place at the right time. At approximately 7 p.m., an explosion fueled
by a gas leak basically leveled a city block on Main Street in downtown Sun Prairie. Cervantes was on the west side of Madison with her young daughter when she
heard about the explosion. With those first-responder instincts, Cervantes responded.
“She said, ‘Mom, if an explosion just happened, isn’t that scary and dangerous,’” Cervantes said about her daughter’s reaction.’” “’Why would you go?’ In her mind,
she couldn’t understand why her mom, of all people, would respond to that. I had to explain to her, ‘Your mom has to help people and I have to go and make sure
that everyone is okay and once that happens, I will come back home.’ It was hard leaving my family because I had left that lifestyle of responding to emergencies so
that she didn’t have to experience it. But it was a situation where I couldn’t stand still. I couldn’t stand watching my community be in need and not respond. At first, I
didn’t know what we were going to do. I just knew that our emergency responders did not have dinner.”
Cervantes and her volunteers got to work.
“I wanted to make sure that the first responders were fed,” Cervantes emphasized. “I knew I couldn’t fight a fire, but I knew that I could feed a firefighter. On the
family side, they were just uprooted from their homes and were being told to go to shelter. What about dinner? What about food? It’s nice to have some snacks, but
warm meals are important. And so, right away we connected with Red Cross and especially with Alder Steve Stocker. I said, ‘Put us to work. Let us know how we
can help. If we are in the way, let us know and we will back off. But if you need the help, we’ll be more than happy to help right away.’ We were distributing food and
drinks to both of the high schools because that is where Red Cross was stationed with families. But then I think Patrick Marsh was where the command center was
for the emergency responders. Doing that, I think at some point I had to run to the hospital to get more supplies. They were out of supplies. That was our initial
response. I probably went home around 1 a.m.”
Cervantes was awoken out of her sleep about 90 minutes later by a call from the school superintendent who had a conference call going with the Red Cross and
others. They needed Sunshine Place’s help.
“’We’ve had an influx in donations, we can’t seem to manage that,’” Cervantes said about the gist of the call. “’Can you help us?’ I said, ‘Absolutely. We have our
center. We can have it be more centralized. We can get the communication out to the community. We’ll play that role.’ I asked if there was anything else that we
could help with. They said, ‘Yes, can you help with food?’ There were over 100 people at the shelters the first night. They said, ‘We need food for breakfast. Can you
help us with that?’ I said, ‘Absolutely, let me figure out what we can do?’”
Costco ended up donating the fixings for breakfast and the Prairie Diner, although undersized — the Main Street restaurants were not able to open due to the impact
of the explosion — cooked the food.
Over the course of the recovery period, Cervantes and her crew helped 35 families regain the normal functioning of their lives, especially when the Red Cross and
the Salvation Army curtailed their efforts. Some were able to restart their lives relatively soon. Some of the families, especially those that were economically
challenged, took a lot longer. But Cervantes and her volunteers were there each step of the way for those families.
“I am extremely proud of our volunteers and programs who stepped up and allowed us to support the families,” Cervantes emphasized. “The hardest part was it
wasn’t their fault that the explosion happened, yet through their personal history or their rent history, they had some challenges, really hard challenges finding
Cervantes and Sunshine Place were just what Sun Prairie needed when it needed it. While they did what they had committed to do without fanfare, just like the first
responders, they made a world of difference for many families and first responders in Sun Prairie. There are many families who will always be grateful for the
difference they made.
For more information about Sunshine Place, call 608-825-3875.
By Jonathan Gramling
As we take a tour of Sunshine Place, a kind of one-stop place for social and other services
located in a former strip mall off of Sun Prairie’s Main Street, it feels as if Joanna Cervantes
has been its executive director for years, although she has only been on the job for two and a
half years. Sunshine Place offers a myriad of services through partnerships with other
agencies like the Sun Prairie Emergency Food Pantry, Centro Hispano, Joining Forces for
Families and others and through the efforts of its many volunteers. A signature program is the
Sunshine Supper, a free community meal held every Monday.
Cervantes was born and raised in California and moved to Wisconsin, initially to the
Milwaukee area where she had studied to become a first responder before moving to Madison
to head up the Wisconsin Hispanic Chamber of Wisconsin’s Madison office. After about two
years, Cervantes missed working directly with people and jumped at the chance to be
Sunshine Place’s executive director when the position became open.