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Rooted in Italy, Raised in California

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Photos courtesy of and story by Becky Cortopassi Carlson

My family comes from a long line of Italian and Swiss Italian farmers and dairy folks. Our farming history is steeped in hard work, family connections and the love of the land.

Dean DeCarli, my Swiss Italian grandpa, used to ride his horse into downtown Stockton from his Robert’s Island farm to sell cattle. My Italian nonno, Amerigo Cortopassi, after immigrating from Lucca, Italy, worked picking artichokes in Davenport, California, and then settled in Stockton to start his own family farm, the Lucky Ranch.

My parents, Dino and Joan, were raised in Stockton and went to Stockton High and UC Davis. They met on a hayride and became high school sweethearts, then marrying in 1958. My siblings and I were raised on our family farm. We swam in irrigation ditches, played on farm equipment and picked cherries from the open bed of a slow-moving truck. It was idyllic.

Dad started from modest beginnings and through tenacity and a dedicated work ethic, alongside my mother, built several successful agricultural businesses. Even in the lean years, they would both share the wealth, whether it was in the form of encouragement, mentorship, introduction to others and/or financial contributions.

As children of farmers, we were expected to help in the family business. My brothers drove tractors, my sister worked in payroll (air conditioning!), and I was a checker in the cucumber fields. It was hot, sweaty work, long hours, no days off if whatever you were harvesting was still in season. My parents wanted us to understand first-hand the lessons of hard work and saving money.

Leaving the Central Valley, I went to college in Colorado at the University of Denver and received my BA in psychology and sociology. Immediately after college I moved to San Francisco to be a group home counselor, working with females aged 10 to 14 who had been removed from their homes because of abuse. Eventually, I earned my elementary teaching credential from University of the Pacific and taught in Lodi, Stockton, Lincoln and Escalon school districts, eventually settling in at Tully C. Knoles as a first-grade instructor.

I married my college sweetheart, Bob Carlson, and four bouncing babies emerged in quick succession. I chose to be a stay-at-home mom but needed another outlet for my energy; giving back to my community was the answer.

Joining Junior Aid, now Junior League, a local women’s philanthropic service group, was the best training experience. It taught me cooperative, effective volunteerism with measurable outcomes. I credit this organization with training hundreds of women to be valuable community volunteers.

As my children entered their school years, I quickly became very involved, from serving hot lunches to Advisory Council Boards. My volunteer training continued; it was a wonderful period of collaborative, creative work, sharing ideas and skills to raise funds for schools and building community.

When my children needed me less, Stockton and Lodi got me more, serving on boards and cohosting large-scale fundraisers for St. Mary’s Community Services, the Cathedral of the Annunciation, Community Partnership for Families and the Haggin Museum of Stockton.

My agriculture background taught me self-reliance and commitment to partner with others. Phrases I heard weekly, if not daily, were: “Many hands make light work;” “Two heads are better than one;” “Your word is your bond;” “The work’s not done until we’re all done.” My parents taught me hard work will get you ahead. But they also understood not everyone comes equipped with the same opportunities such as a stable home life, education opportunities, a skill or trade or a reliable mentor. To that end, in 1990 my folks formed Cortopassi Family Foundation, or CFF, under the operating motto “Responsible Philanthropy.” Through the years, the foundation’s activities have continued to expand and currently include support for family services, educational grants, the arts, civic support, wildlife habitat development, as well as a host of other worthy causes.

CFF is a California nonprofit public benefit corporation privately funded by Joan and Dino Cortopassi to establish a lasting structure to provide financial support to qualified organizations that work to improve the wellbeing of the people and environment of San Joaquin County and Stanislaus County, the communities from which their families emerged to grow and prosper.