Karina Servente is living the American Dream in American Canyon, and along the way is helping others enjoy a better life as well.
An immigrant from Guatemala, Servente has spent nearly a decade in her adopted hometown. When she’s not raising her 9-year-old son with her husband, she’s volunteering at schools, at City Hall, and in local civic organizations.
Servente has helped orchestrate the city’s annual Season of Giving event each December, which provides low-income families, many of whom are immigrants, with food and Christmas gifts.
She has spent the last three years serving on the Parks and Community Services Commission, and has been a member of the Kiwanis Club and Lions Club. She’s been both a member and president of the Mom’s Club.
Her volunteer work has included fundraising activities at Canyon Oaks Elementary School, which her son Lorenzo attends, and American Canyon Middle School — that is when she’s not doing her job as a parent liaison at both campuses.
Two years ago, Servente’s many efforts in the community were recognized when she was presented with the Gateway Award — the highest honor bestowed by the city to those who go above and beyond in American Canyon.
“This is a great place [to live],” said Servente from her home in the Montevino neighborhood. “I feel it is a small city with a big heart.”
“I love to give [back],” she added about her civic engagement, particularly when it involves children and education.
“I feel when kids are busy and have things to do in your community, there is less chance of them getting into stuff they shouldn’t get into.”
Having spent her first 18 years in Guatemala, Servente, now 45, has seen how life can go wrong for young people.
She grew up in Peten, a large rural state in Guatemala known for its Mayan ruins. She came of age during the 1970s and 1980s, at a time when her country was marred by military dictatorships, civil warfare, and atrocities.
Her father, Rafael Arevalo, dedicated his life to public service in Peten, and inspired her to think of others once she was an adult.
“If kids needed soccer balls, he provided them,” Servente said of her father. “If they needed to build something for the kids or a park, he provided the materials.”
Arevalo was a politician and a police chief — positions that made him more than a few enemies in Guatemala, and that ultimately cost him his life.
Servente says she was the last person to speak with her father before he was murdered at his home in 2002. She was living with her mother in the U.S. by then, after receiving political asylum.
She spent several days trying to reach her father by phone. Once she did, they spent the time catching up, talking about life, completely unaware it would be their last conversation.
Piecing together information from Guatemalan newspaper stories and telephone records, Servente realized after the fact that her father was killed only 10 minutes after they hung up the phone.
“We don’t know who killed him,” she said. “We never found out.”
“We don’t know if it was because of drugs [or gangs],” Servente added, or if it stemmed from the time her father helped break up a smuggling ring that was stealing Mayan artifacts and selling them.
“It could have come from that, but who knows.”
After arriving in America, Servente first settled in Marin County, where she went to college and later worked for FedEx.
It was at FedEx that she met her husband, Jeff, a fifth generation resident of Vallejo, whose own father, Larry Servente, was active in local politics and the community.
Being a teenager at the time she moved to the U.S., Servente said she didn’t want to come here at first. All of her friends were back in Guatemala, and she knew only a little English then.
But in time she grew to love her new country. She strives to be a productive member of her community, in part to demonstrate that immigrants belong in the U.S.
“I’m glad I came,” said Servente. “I have the opportunity to show people that what you see in the news about Hispanics that’s negative” isn’t always true.
“We are a very essential part of this country,” she added. “I can be like a role model. I hope a good one. I’m not perfect. I have my cons as well. But I strive to be a good person.”
Those who know Servente speak very highly of her.
Sande Sutter, who received the 2017 Gateway Award along with Nance Matson, called Servente a “dynamo” who “jumps into service with heart, head and hands.”
“She gets food to the needy, set up a science Lego program at Canyon Oaks and holds audiences’ attention in both English and Spanish when she gets the microphone,” said Sutter.
“If Karina’s involved, the event improves,” she added. “She’s a powerhouse, and I’m proud to call her my friend.”
Clarence Mamaril, himself an immigrant from the Philippines, has worked with Servente on the Parks and Community Services Commission (PCS), “where she provides valuable insight about American Canyon recreation and special events, particularly for our bilingual residents.”
“She gives of her time and talent because of unconditional love of our community,” Mamaril said, “and her enthusiasm for helping others is contagious, whether it’s with the Kiwanis Club, Lions Club, PCS, her duties as a school liaison, and the Season of Giving events, among others.”
“Her friendship and extraordinary service to the city are a blessing,” he added.