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Charity Matters Podcast Episode 6: Alma’s Backyard Farms a lesson in feeding the soul

We are excited to share our inspirational conversation with Erika Cuellar and Richard Garcia the Co-Founders of Alma’s Backyard Farms. In today’s episode, we discuss the origins of Alma’s Backyard Farms. The journey that brought Richard and Erika to Compton and to begin their nonprofit organization. What fuels them to do this work and the life lessons learned in the process of creating this amazing organization that exists to reclaim the lives of formerly incarcerated people.

Almas Backyard Farm  re-purposes urban land into productive urban farm plots and re-imagine disenfranchised communities in Los Angeles as a hub for transformation. Co-founder, Erika Cuellar is an LA native and first-generation Mexican-American. Growing up in Watts, Erika witnessed how her community has been fraught with challenges in education and food insecurity.  Erika’s co-founder is Richard Garcia whose passion to grow food comes from a long line of Filipino farmers. Before launching Alma Backyard Farms, Richard initiated garden programs for schools and restaurants.   

A few highlights from our conversation:

Charity Matters: Tell us about the name of your organization? And who is Alma?

Richard Garcia: There is a lot in a name. Alma in Spanish means soul. Food is what we grow. Our programming and services are intended to nourish the soul. That being community, a place to thrive. kinship connection that’s why we chose Alma’s Backyard Garden because Alma is also the street where we first started our first backyard garden.

Charity Matters: Tell us More about how you began Alma’s Backyard Gardens?

Erika Cuellar:  I went on to work at Homegirl Cafe, shortly after my senior year of college.  And so, Richard had come back to Homegirl Cafe to work with us and help develop a few different components of the training program, including a gardening aspect.

So we started an experiment, the idea of the entire food process of growing, preparing, and serving and so a lot of the women (previously incarcerated) that we were working with had never grown vegetables or had much exposure to what growing food is like.  It was during that work at Homegirl Cafe, that the fire was was was was ignited in our hearts to really pursue to pursue Alma.

And so we really started looking at backyards, like, how can we utilize underutilized space?  How can we take backyards that are not being maximized in Los Angeles, and create these farms? With the goal to grow foods to really nourish people and provide opportunities for folks who are we serving. The first backyard that we had installed was on Alma Avenue. That’s Richard’s house, which still remains a backyard farm.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to do this work? Your work is physically demanding as farmers and running A nonprofit, How do you keep going when it’s hard?

Erika Cuellar:  Good sleep, a good spiritual life, good prayer. And eating well, like, I like those three things. And exercise four things that keep us grounded and going.

Richard Garcia: There is a discipline with love, where you have to choose it every day. So it may not always feel wonderful. But there is a edify, deeper, an edifying feeling of knowing that the choice to love happens. Someone wants to describe farming is you know, picking up picking things up, and putting things down and that sometimes feels like the whole day.

Yeah, you’re picking things up putting things down, you’re loading, you’re offloading. The other day someone picked up kale and they’re preparing this kale for a kitchen that serves homeless folks. And then she looked around and she said to me, “I could see you love what you do.”  And I thought that was one of the nicest compliments.  There is this meticulousness about how we orchestrate the space because our intention is for people to really have a sense of presence in the space. So that is also fuel.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience? 

Richard Garcia: I think, you know, there’s a life lesson, it’s that God works through the challenges, not apart from it, not a distance from it, but through them. And so, I’m anticipating that there are challenges ahead. And, and I think, growing to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, has been one of the lessons that I’ve learned to appreciate.

Erika Cuellar:  The first word that came to mind when you said life lessons was the importance of honesty. To live a life that is honest.  I think there are many life lessons. But if you know we talk about what fuels and what motivates and what gets you going every day, and it’s that reminder to choose to be chosen and to choose love.

I guess it’s more than the lesson…. I think the lesson lies in embracing and accepting honesty. Being honest and all of your relationships and, as a business as a nonprofit business being honest in your transactions in stewardship. So I think that’s at the core of the values and lessons that I’ve learned. It is instrumental to really be able to live a life, not just for myself, but for others.

CHARITY MATTERS.

 

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The Heroes of 2020

If ever there was a year that turned our planet upside is has been this one. Last year we all began 2020 with such hope. A new decade and such expectation that was to come crashing down three short months later. Now we are all counting down the days until 2020 is behind us. As someone who tries to find the silver lining in everything when I look back at 2020 I smile thinking of the amazing humans we met this year. Each of these people gives selflessly to make our world better. I thought today we would look back at some of the remarkable conversations of 2020. And a few highlights.

The Kindness Campaign: Andra Liemandt

We began 2020 by talking to the founder of the Kindness Campaign to learn about their mission to serve the socio-emotional needs of children. This year their work was more important than ever. You can revisit the full conversation, here.

CHARITY MATTERS: WHAT WAS THE MOMENT YOU KNEW YOU NEEDED TO ACT AND START  THE KINDNESS CAMPAIGN?

Andra Liemandt: Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens. Several years ago this touched my life in a very powerful and profound way when a dear friend of ours took her own life and she was just 12 years old and it was a direct result of bullying.  There was no path for me to start a nonprofit or any inkling that I would be sitting here five years later talking to you about this. That event changed my life forever and was the catalyst for an ongoing healing process with my daughters.

Homelessness:

There are so many incredible organizations trying to help the homeless. This year we met more than a few. These two women especially stand out for their incredible compassion and dedication to serving the homeless.  Heather Carmichael has been working with homeless youth for almost two decades at My Friends Place and  Caitlin Adler works to ensure that the homeless have proper clothing through her nonprofit Project Ropa.

 My Friends Place: Heather CArmichael

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Heather Carmichael: There are so many. The landscape around addressing homelessness is under such dynamic change. For years, no one spoke about homelessness and now we have an epidemic crisis. Communities are overwhelmed and LA is in such pain about this. How do we continue to engage communities in meaningful ways so that we maintain momentum towards a solution? 

I feel very grateful to be doing the work at My Friend’s Place, where our main priority is to resolve these young people’s homelessness while continuing to create meaningful opportunities to see the impact and to feel involved. How do we scale to that in a meaningful way? A multitude of things got us here and it will take a multitude of things to fix this. We need to create meaningful opportunities to get our community and supporters involved in understanding and being a part of the solution.

Project Ropa: Caitlin Adler

Caitlin Adler created Project Ropa in 2015 to address the challenges that homeless people face in obtaining and keeping clean clothes. Though homelessness is accompanied by many things, one of its greatest indignities comes from the absence of hygiene services.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Project Ropa does?

Caitlin Adler:  Most homeless people literally have only the clothes on their backs. Access to clean clothing is essential to the overall well-being of a person and can be the key to opening doors to employment and housing. How you look affects how you feel about yourself and how others treat you. Now, because of the health threats posed by the coronavirus, the need to overcome those challenges has become ever greater.

Health:

Claire Marie Foundation: Marianne Banister

When former LA reporter Marianne Banister lost her 17-year-old daughter, Claire to melanoma. She and her husband went to work to get the word out about this cancer and created the Claire Marie Foundation.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what THE Claire Marie Foundation does?

Marianne Banister Wagonhurst: When this happened to our family, to our daughter, Claire, we were blindsided. And because even the medical profession did not realize kids could get melanoma at this age. It looked different than adult melanoma and it was more aggressive and more invasive. according to pediatricians. Melanoma is the number two, cancer in adolescence from 10 to 19 and the number one cancer in young adults from 20 to 29. This cancer is the number one cause of cancer death and young women 25 to 30. In young people, this disease is more aggressive and invasive than in older people.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Marianne Banister Wagonhurst:  Claire. There’s never anything that’s going to make it right that we lost her. There’s never any sense to it. But I truly believe this is her purpose. And if I don’t keep this foundation going and do the work that needs to be done, and I’m not fulfilling her purpose, and we would have lost her for no reason.

Brave Gowns: Summer Germann

Summer Germann is no stranger to hospitals, illness, tragedy, or adversity. What is remarkable about Summer is that she uses all of this adversity, including COVID, as fuel for good. She is a bright light who started a nonprofit Brave Gowns and when COVID hit she reached out to her team to begin manufacturing PPE (personal protective gear) in the form of masks for thousands of health care workers across the country. A modern-day hero.

Charity Matters: How did you decide to get into the PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) for COVID?

Summer Germann:  Friday, March 13th  I called my designer and I knew we had to figure out a way to help. We had talked about making masks and families have asked us for years. I knew we could make them fun. I called my factory and told them what I wanted to do and they had already started a prototype three weeks before. I said you have to give me a product that I believe in and this isn’t about money. They sent over the prototype and I said, “Okay, I just launched.” By Monday we had 11,000 orders.

Scarlet C of COVID

I hate to end this year with this story but COVID was the defining story of 2020. This article was reprinted by a number of magazines and publications and had more views than any piece I wrote in 2020 so it was worth an honorable mention on the list.

 While I didn’t interview any specific health care workers but rather organizations that support them, it is worth mentioning that our front line workers were THE true superheroes of 2020.

There are so many remarkable humans on this planet and these are just a few. As 2020 comes to a close and we look to a New Year ahead I think there are so many qualities to emulate that each of these heroes possesses. Tony Robbins sums up these heroes perfectly when he said, “The people who are most alive, driven and fulfilled are those that seek to lead a life of contribution and service. To something greater than themselves.”  Thank you, Andra, Heather, Caitlin, Marianne, and Summer for showing us by example what true service and living a life of contribution looks like. At the end of the day isn’t that what we are all striving for?

Wishing all of you blessings for a most joyous and Happy New Year!

 

CHARITY MATTERS

 

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Project Ropa

If you live in an urban area, you are aware of our national homeless epidemic. Los Angeles alone has over 66,000 people living on the streets of our city, according to the latest statistics. Nationally, 17 out of every 10,000 people in our country are homeless, according to the nonprofit end homelessness.org.  The problem is so overwhelming and huge that most people don’t know where to begin. Everyone except Caitlin Adler that is. Caitlin and I spoke last month about homelessness, COVID, and her incredible work as the founder of Project Ropa.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Project Ropa does?

Caitlin Adler:  We started Project Ropa in 2015 to address the challenges that homeless people face in obtaining and keeping clean clothes. Though homelessness is accompanied by many things, one of its greatest indignities comes from the absence of hygiene services.

Most homeless people literally have only the clothes on their backs. Access to clean clothing is essential to the overall well-being of a person and can be the key to opening doors to employment and housing. How you look affects how you feel about yourself and how others treat you. Now, because of the health threats posed by the coronavirus, the need to overcome those challenges has become ever greater.

Project Ropa provides a selection of new and gently used high-quality men’s and women’s clothing, shoes, and accessories, along with personal hygiene products (donated by local manufacturers, retailers, and nonprofit partners). Each week we bring the clothing throughout the city in a retrofitted van that acts as a mobile walk-in closet. At the same time, the people we serve can take a shower offered by another service provider, called Lava Mae, that we partner with.

Charity Matters: Did you have a background in philanthropy or nonprofit Prior to Project Ropa?

Caitlin Adler:  No, I didn’t have any nonprofit background.  My background was in hospitality. I was a pastry chef for 15 years and had a bakery in Boston. When I moved to LA, I was really burned out and began doing restaurant design. I wanted my life to have a purpose and I had a heart for the homeless but really didn’t know how to make an impact.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start  Project Ropa?

Caitlin Adler:  I  began volunteering for a nonprofit called Chrysalis, which helps people transition out of homelessness. I helped them sort their clothing donations and quickly realized that they had surplus clothing of some items that they couldn’t use and a shortage of other items. I began to help them redistributing the clothing between six other nonprofit partners.

After talking to other charities it became clear that there was a gap in the system. In 2015, I started Project Ropa by redistributing unwanted donations from local charities with the goal of using the remaining clothes to one day stock a mobile pop-up shop for people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles. Since 2016, we have taken the concept to the streets. Clean clothes and access to personal hygiene products significantly impact a person’s economic well-being, physical health, and emotional resilience. We received our 501c3 in 2017.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Caitlin Adler: We have a few challenges. Currently, with COVID we are the only organization that is handling clothing. The lack of education from other nonprofits on clothing distribution has been challenging. Maintaining good relationships with the city and county can be hard.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Caitlin Adler: At the end of the day, when you know that someone who is homeless can get a job because you have provided them access to a shower and given them something to wear. It is a great feeling. Once our clients get jobs they need to come back for more than one thing to wear to work but to stay employed.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Caitlin Adler: We had a gentleman come in recently and he literally was in tattered rags and had maggots on him. He had a shower and we gave him new clothes, new shoes, a face mask, gloves and he felt and acted like a new person. He had dignity and a smile. Those are the moments when I know we have made a difference.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success and impact you have had?

Caitlin Adler: Since we started we have clothed over 30,000 people. All of that clothing was 84,000 pounds of clothing that did not go into a landfill. I think our biggest impact is the job that clothing helps people get. We have directly provided clothing for more than 800 people for job interviews. Once our clients have a shower, clean new clothes, and shoes, and dignity they are ready to get a job. When they come back for more clean clothes to wear to work that is a huge impact. 

The other impact is basic hygiene such as tampons and clean underwear that we provide. These small items make a huge impact on someone’s life. 

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for your organization, what would that be?

Caitlin Adler: I think if we could continue to franchise our model in other areas and build in a way that incorporates social enterprise. We would love to continue recycling as part of our model as well.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Caitlin Adler: I came into this experience naive and trusting looking out for the good of the community. I originally did this by myself and partnered with twelve other organizations. Over time I have learned so much more about the multiple facets of homelessness.

How has this journey changed you?

Caitlin Adler: I used to be so afraid of the homeless because I didn’t have any personal interaction. When you know people by name and care for them you learn understanding and compassion and we all need more of that.

 

CHARITY MATTERS.

 

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Faces In Between

There has been much conversation about the future of our country and the challenges that many of our young graduates are facing in these uncertain times. If ever there was a bright light that gives us all hope for humanity, it is Danielle Levin, the President, and refounder of Faces In Between. Danielle literally graduated from Columbia with her Masters in Public Health the day before our conversation last week. She is remarkable in what she has accomplished in 25 short years and I know the future is bright with compassionate leaders like Danielle changing our world through her inspiring work serving youth, families, and the homeless.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Faces In Between does?

Danielle Levin: Faces in Between is a community outreach and support organization. We focus on developing different programs that increase the well being of our community members who are experiencing different forms of economic disadvantage. We primarily work with youth and families as well as youth who are experiencing homelessness. Sometimes there are overlaps between those, sometimes there’s not.

For our homeless outreach, we distribute care packages and we’re in New York City so in the winter that looks like sleeping bags, blankets, hats, gloves, scarves, and things like that. We have a speaker series where we bring individuals who are currently experiencing homelessness into different settings to share their own stories and advocate on behalf of themselves and their community. There’s nothing more powerful than hearing it directly from the source and being able to truly ask the questions that many of us have and don’t really know who to ask or where to go to find the answer.

We also have an after school program called SNACC, which stands versus Stainable Nutrition And Community Connection. It teaches economically disadvantaged youth how to prepare healthily, but affordable meals with items that are available in their local grocery stores. We bring different New York City chefs in to teach students and then we incorporate different social, emotional learning components into each session that we have. However, with COVID, we have not been able to run our programming as we had planned. So we pivoted what we do while keeping our mission exactly the same.

We have developed a COVID relief food program, and we are currently delivering daily meals to over 200 people. We are working with a local farm to table catering company who’s bringing boxes of food directly to the doors, the homes, the shelters of elementary age students and their families. So that’s been our new way of connecting with the community. We are in the process of launching a Chef’s Table page on our website. We’re having chefs send us in video recordings of themselves doing cooking demos for the kids. The chefs are going to show the students and their families how to create healthy and affordable meals with the ingredients provided in the boxes. So we’ve really been creative in our approach and are just trying to meet the community where they are. 

Charity Matters: You are 25 years old and have already accomplished so much, You literally graduated last week with your Master’s Degree in Public Health. have you always been philanthropic?

Danielle Levin:  I’ve always been someone that wanted to be a changemaker; I wanted to be an agent for change. I would spend my summers interning for refugee resettlement organization or running a health clinic and interning  for HIV AIDS facilities abroad. I just always knew that I wanted to do something to increase well being and to help people be able to live their best lives.

Homelessness and economic disadvantage have always been something that’s of particular interest to me. Especially focusing on youth because kids have so much to look forward to and so much potential.  When I moved to New York, I had the opportunity to just really get to know my neighbors who didn’t have homes. There are over 65,000 homeless individuals in New York City on any given night.  I had the opportunity to really understand, and to sit down on the street corners and talk with my neighbors who didn’t have homes, get to know what their needs were, learn their stories, and that’s kind of where the speaker series developed from. Also, all the items that we deliver aren’t because I think that they should be delivered, it’s because I know it from hearing directly from the source.

Charity Matters: Tell us how Faces In Between began?

Danielle Levin: It’s kind of an interesting story and series of events, and it’s all just so meant to be. In 2016, I was moving to New York, graduating undergrad, and I was going to work in a corporate healthcare job and wanted to really do something in my spare time working with homelessness and poverty. I came across this woman who had posted something online about how she started this organization called Faces in Between. Her name is Kendra and she filed the paperwork and set up the organization. She was a psychiatric ER doctor who worked around the clock and didn’t really have the opportunity to actually launch the organization in the way she had planned.

I reached out to her and she brought me onto the team. In 2018, I kinda said, Hey Kendra, nothing’s really happened with the organization in like a year and a half. She said, “Actually, I am going to shut it down. It’s not the right time.”  I said, well if it’s going to shut down now and fail now, why don’t I just take it over? I’ll rework it, I’ll rebuild it, I’ll flip it and keep the general mission exactly the same, but the approach to it will change. I thought it either fails with me, or doesn’t, but let’s see what happens. So she passed it over to me. And so I’m kind of like, the refounder.

 Kendra remains as my incredible mentor and she looks at what we’ve done with such pride. She had no idea that it would then turn into this and she’s watching it from afar and just seeing all the things that we’ve accomplished and the thousands of people that were touching daily. 

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Danielle Levin: I think our biggest challenge is also our biggest strength, the challenge is that we are 100% volunteer-based. Every donor dollar goes directly to the community. I am a full-time volunteer for the organization. I think that it’s our biggest strength but it definitely poses challenges because we make decisions on maximizing community impact versus a business model. I think that it is something so special and I will keep this model for as long as I can. It’s working for us. Upon graduating I’m going to be working full time for another corporation so that I can maintain this model. I think that it’s our strength, but it’s a challenge to figure out how to maximize and how to stretch every dollar to make sure that it’s truly making a difference in the lives of our community. I think it’s also the most beautiful part and it’s what makes us us. 

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Danielle Levin: I have so much passion for the work that I do that I don’t mind late nights and early mornings and weekends. For me, it doesn’t feel like work, I truly get so much pleasure out of it. Challenging myself to reach the next limit and figure out how many more thousands of people can we feed or how many more meals can we deliver by tomorrow or next week. To me, it’s time well spent.

I think that I have a unique skill– I am really good at creative problem solving when it comes to real-life issues and coming up with effective solutions. I mean, what fuels someone to want to finish a puzzle? There are things that I can contribute, and if I don’t use it, then it’s kind of going to waste. If you have a gift, you might as well share it with the world.

It fuels me to see the recipients, people who are receiving our services, and their reactions to it. When it’s going to be zero degrees out, and someone is handed a sleeping bag, and they know that that’s their lifeline, it fuels me. When kids learn a new recipe and they’re taking home nutritious food to their family, but they might have had pizza for breakfast yesterday, it fuels me. I love learning from other people, strategically collaborating, picking people’s brains, kind of figuring out how to accomplish things that could have at first seemed impossible. But, when you break it down, you realize it’s all within reach. 

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Danielle Levin: I have two answers. One is in terms of the work we do with homeless outreach. Those moments look like people reaching out who have spoken at our speaker series and saying,” you changed my life, you reminded me that I’m human, you made me feel human again”  and to help someone realize that they are who they’ve always been, is a really powerful moment.

With our youth and families, I think that, honestly, through our COVID relief is how I’ve realized our impact because when you’re teaching kids how to cook, you’re not home with them. You don’t see what they’re doing outside of the program. So you don’t know what type of impact you’ve truly made. But I think that seeing how we can so quickly jump into action  and pivot to support the community because of the infrastructures that are there was powerful for me and the team. Unfortunately, our list of in-need families is growing as the crisis evolves. This week, we officially took every single person off of our waitlist. That’s a really powerful moment to know that every person in this community who’s expressed the need for food, we are able to provide it for them. 

Charity Matters: If you could create a billboard that showed your impact, what would it look like?

Danielle Levin: I think that it would be a picture of our community members, smiling, being part of the community. I think that it would have some kind of message about the individuality of everyone that we serve, and the personal stories– kind of meeting the community where they are. We’re not just providing kids with a meal and saying we changed a life. What we are doing is much more than that.

I think that in all the work we do, it’s important to give people resources and tools, and we can’t expect that they’ll use it in a certain way or receive it in a certain way, or that they even want it but equipping people with resources and tools is so important. I think that meeting people where they are and understanding that one kid might act like they hate our after school program, but we don’t know what’s going on at home. So meeting people really where they are, and letting them participate in the cooking when they want to, let them serve, letting them take extra servings if that’s what they want, or skip out on the servings– I think that it’s really about understanding that we might be serving a community, but within the community, each person has their own story. 

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for your organization, what would that be?

Danielle Levin: That there’s no longer a need for us, that we have to go out of business because everyone has the resources that they need to live their day to day lives, and thrive in whatever way that means to them.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Danielle Levin: I’ve learned a lot. Every single day I learn something new. I think the biggest one is to take risks because everything I’ve done is a risk. I never knew if any of it would work. I’m 25 years old and I launched an after school program at a New York City public school. We just pitched it. We just went to a school and said we think that we’d be a good fit for your school and we pitched it because we had nothing to lose. If we didn’t take that risk, we would have gained nothing, they would have gained nothing, but we’re now providing their students with these meals during this crisis. I think that one thing is to just take risks and think outside the box.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Danielle Levin: I think that my entire perspective has changed. If you told me something, I would question where you learned that from, where you heard that from because to me, I’ve become so used to going to the source and saying to someone who’s experiencing homelessness, I heard this stigma, how do you feel about it? How does that make you feel? I think that hearing the story from the source and learning the facts from who they come from has definitely changed me and my perspective, rather than kind of just accepting what we as a society tend to believe is true.

I’ve always been someone who loves connecting with others, but my ability to do so has become much more well rounded because you might think you have nothing in common with someone who doesn’t have a home and is sleeping outside on the street for the last 10 years, but learning how to connect with someone who seems different, but then finding commonalities with them really changes you. I have become a lot more flexible in my life because when you’re working with individuals who don’t have as much structure as let’s say you and I might have in our lives, you have to learn how to be flexible and adaptable.

I think the biggest thing is knowing how to push limits and knowing that where I am now isn’t the end. There is so much more to do and so much more I will do. It’s easy to stick to the status quo, but to push the limits and see what happens has only led to success and has changed my perspective on how I live my daily life. 

 

CHARITY MATTERS.

 

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Duet

Duet Team

A few weeks ago I had lunch with Abby Mandell, the Executive Director of USC Marshall School’s Social Enterprise Lab. It is a remarkable undergraduate and graduate program that challenges today’s brightest students to come up with innovative solutions that solve some of humanity’s greatest challenges. Abby told me about some of the inspirational ideas her students have accomplished and one of them resulted in the creation of a nonprofit organization called Duet.

Stephanie Van Sickel in Lesvos, Greece

A team of six students in a USC Viterbi School of Engineering course took on an assignment of how to use human-centered design to create a system or a product around understanding the refugee crisis between Syria and Europe, with the goal to help alleviate at least one facet of the very complex issues facing refugees. Last week I connected with two of the team Co-Founder Michael Cesar and the head of Business Development, Stephanie Van Sickel to learn more about what these incredible students have achieved and where they are going with Duet.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Duet does?

Michael Cesar: Through a class at USC, as a group of students we tried to create a new system of giving to tackles some of the older problems that have existed in philanthropy for awhile. We have created a new way of giving that is more transparent and more efficient. We did this to help Syrian refugees settling in Greece. We help rebuild their lives by giving them access to some of the key things that we all use every day such as basic necessities to things like a soccer ball that make you feel like yourself. We help them at the moment of resettlement to try to elevate them to a higher role of living.

Stephanie Van Sickel: All these people want to help and there are all these great organizations that let people help. The old model is the money goes to the organization and then items that people need are being shipped overseas or people donate on items that they assume are needed.

We are shifting that model by putting the power in the hands of the recipient. We enable refugees to go to the local store and decide what they need. When a donor decides they want to buy someone in our system diapers for example. The recipient goes to their local store and uses their duet credit to “purchase” the diaper size their child needs and as a result, they help the local economy and store owner’s business. There are two impacts here, it is not just for the refugees it is for the local community and economy.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about how this class at USC works?

Stephanie Van Sickel: The class is about human-centered design and innovation in engineering for global grant challenges. It is an interdisciplinary course so graduate and undergraduate students and for a full year you are broken up into teams to find solutions to improve the lives of refugees. The class is partnered with the refugee camps and those situated outside the camps in Leptos, Greece.

Duet founders Rhys Richmond and Michael Cesar

Charity Matters: When you started this class did you think you were going to start a nonprofit?

Michael Cesar: No, initially but very quickly yes. We started believing quite early on that this was a real possibility. When I initially signed up for the class I thought I was going to probably drop it within the first few weeks.

Stephanie Van Sickel: I think we fell in love with the problem, not necessarily the solution. Then when you realize that you have the possibility to actually make a difference, you have to keep going forward.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start Duet?

Michael Cesar: The first realization was when we visited the camps for the first time and quickly realized the inefficiency of current aid. We saw so much waste, we saw donations that came that didn’t fit or coats coming in the summer, we saw tons of toys donated but no one had underwear or children’s books in the wrong language. We were so frustrated because the outpouring of love was real and yet it wasn’t being funneled the correct way.

We saw the pain of the people being handed things. These refugees have been stripped of the choices they make from the clothes they are wearing, which were not their own and the lack of autonomy over their lives. We walked into a few local stores and asked if they would be interested in a system where refugees could shop and be a part of a new system of support for the refugees and the store owners were excited to be able to help and be a part of a solution.

Stephanie Van Sickel: We realized pretty quickly that locals were wary of nonprofits because since the refugee crisis began in 2015 so many organizations came and left. The store owners were trying to sell a good and then a nonprofit would come in with a million pieces of that item for refugees and the store owner couldn’t survive. So these store owners were cautious initially in trusting us but when we said that we wanted to work with them and the stores are a critical piece of the solution they were excited to partner with us.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Stephanie Van Sickel: We are asking people to look at philanthropy differently as opposed to an organization that tells you what you need. In this case, the refugees know best what they need and it is a shift as to how people look at giving and philanthropy. The refugee crisis is a big complicated issue so getting people to the starting line to understand what we do and why we do it and then going from there. We may feel small but we think big at Duet. Duet can really help people who are being rehoused or rehomed in many different opportunities whether it is because of a fire or coming out of homelessness, there are a lot of different opportunities to use the model we have built.

Michael Cesar: We are trying to focus on the way people think about giving. The challenge comes in shifting the power dynamic from the old model where the donor is the hero. To the new model where the donor is the supporter. It is a shift in belief systems.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Stephanie Van Sickel: For me, this is what I have decided to dedicate my life too. It’s why I came to get my MBA. This has been the work I have wanted to be in my entire life. Now knowing the faces on the other side and seeing the true impact of what we are doing. So now when its 1 am and I have one more thing to do, you just push through. This is bigger than you and that’s what helps to drive you.

Michael Cesar:  For me, I really, really want to fix the problem. I’m quite stubborn as a person. The idea that there is a problem that we have all seen that exists, that it could be fixed and that could radically change the way that love, generosity, and kindness is shared around the world, is sort of infuriating to me. The idea of chipping away at the roadblock is what I have become obsessed with. To let the kindness and humanity come out and to let people engage and remove the roadblock has been such a wonderful problem to try and fix.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Stephanie Van Sickel: I went back to Greece this past fall to meet with everyone and see how things were going, especially with our store partners. The stores said that the families thank us so much even though we are only part of this, someone else donated the diapers that they got to pick up from our store but we get thanked. The stores asked if we could have the duet families’ names and we asked why. They said that these Duet families who come in to get their things become friends and we would love to be able to make them feel more welcome when we see them by knowing their names. We didn’t set out to integrate the community but to see the shift in the way these two groups are referring to each other as neighbors and friends was so inspiring.

Michael Cesar: When a refugee picks up an item that has been donated at their local store we ask for a photo confirmation to make sure that our donors know that the item they paid for was received by the person they intended it for. What has been unexpected is that when the refugee is taking their picture to confirm they received the item, they ask that we send along with their photo with a thank you message to the donor who bought this item for them. It has been so touching and unexpected. 

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had? What has your impact been?

Stephanie Van Sickel: We like breaking our impact up into different buckets. We say that we have had 320 items put into the lives of refugees to rebuild their lives. Beyond that, we have moved $10,000 of direct profit into small family-owned businesses in towns impacted by the refugee crisis. We have almost 150 unique donors from all over the world.

Michael Cesar:  I think we have one story that best explains what happens when you let people maximize what they receive by letting them choose you can change their lives. We had one guy who was a single father and he only requested diapers for a very long time. We told him he could ask for other items and finally, months later he requested a $400 laptop, which was the highest request we had ever received. We asked why and he explained that he had 200,000 youtube followers in his homeland who watched his phone repair videos and if he could get a laptop he would be able to be paid again by youtube and could support his family. One of our donors bought him his laptop and he is now becoming self-sufficient caring for his child.

This is a group of talented resourceful hard working people and if you give them the basic tools they will succeed beyond your expectations.

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for Duet what would that be?

Michael Cesar: I would love the moment where thirty other organizations have adopted our model and the world has moved to this new way of giving. We don’t decide what people need and the receiver does. I would love if this went into other organizations, new nonprofits, even the United Nations could adopt this new mentality. I would love for this app to be something that makes us think about how we are treating those who we are trying to help.

Stephanie Van Sickel: I would like to see Duet grow and become a new philanthropic model being used all over the world and shifting the way people look at philanthropy.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Michael Cesar: My emotions are much closer to the surface now. 

Stephanie Van Sickel: Growing up I thought I wanted to be close to these issues. I got into development because I wanted to make an impact larger than myself. If I couldn’t give a million dollars at least I could raise it to make the impact and move the needle. Duet has opened up my eyes that I want to be closer to the problem and more boots on the ground to continue to make more of a human impact.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Stephanie Van Sickel: Being such a small team we realize that if we are not asking on social media the giving comes to a complete stop. If you don’t ask you don’t receive.

Michael Cesar: Dignity isn’t something you can never take away from someone. Everybody has it and it is far more important than I previously thought. You treat people with dignity and you respect the dignity that other people have. I have also learned the difference I can make in other people’s lives. 

CHARITY MATTERS.

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My Friend’s Place

So often in my life, multiple people point me in a singular direction and if I pay close enough attention I get the clue. A girlfriend of mine has been telling me about My Friend’s Place, a youth homeless organization, for years. A girl I work out with at the gym and her husband are very involved and have mentioned My Friend’s Place to me a number of times. Then over the holidays, I met a board member from My Friend’s Place who introduced me recently to the lovely Executive Director, Heather Carmichael. We finally connected and I am so thrilled we did. Heather’s insight and perspective on what is happening to these young people who are experiencing homelessness was so insightful and inspiring. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what My Friend’s Place does?

Heather Carmichael: My Friend’s Place is a 32-year-old organization that is a change maker in young people’s lives who are in the throes of experiencing homelessness. We are about creating a connection so that young people might begin to trust this community of support. We are a safe place to be in their crisis and a place that can help them stay connected to themselves, who they are and who they want to be in their future.

We want them to see that their current situation is hopefully circumstantial and that when their homelessness comes to an end that they are still who they are and want to be. If these young people can survive the trauma, make meaning and find opportunity then what they can contribute to our community is profound.

We try to help these young people to craft a whole identity. Developmentally, at 18 they have little or no training, minimum wage jobs do not resolve their problems. Living on the streets can be a very hostile experience trying to navigate life at age 18, 20, or 24. We do everything that a family or a friend would do to support someone at that age to find their way.

My Friend’s Place Founder Steve LePore and Executive Director, Heather Carmichael

Charity Matters: Tell us about how My Friend’s Place started?

Heather Carmichael:  In 1988 Steve LePore and Craig Scholz saw a rise in youth homelessness in Hollywood. The draw of Hollywood and the entertainment business has always made Hollywood a lure for many. In the mid-1980s Steve and Craig started to address the issue with a very grassroots organization originally called The Lighthouse.

They were scrappy opening up the back of their trunk to give kids something to eat, someone to relate to and listen to them and then eventually a place to stay. Hunger was one of the main issues then. Today we have taken the work that they began and expanded to a staff of thirty that provides legal aid, mental health, a host of outreach programs to create a one-stop community center. 

We now serve 1400 youth a year with about seventy-five to eighty coming in each day to eat, rest, shower, receive clothing and programming. We address both the immediate crisis and their long term goals and needs. Doing what any family would do for one of their children who was trying to get on their feet. We want to help these young people with their pain and find their potential of who they can be.

Charity Matters: How did you get involved with Mt Friend’s Place?

Heather Carmichael:I arrived at My Friend’s Place over twenty years ago, in the mid-1990s. I was working with youth runaways in San Francisco and doing a suicide assessment of programs with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and saw first hand the work that was being done for youth homeless and how young people responded to different environments. An opportunity surfaced when Steve LePore stepped away and a Clinical Director position opened up at My Friend’s Place in 2000 and I came on board and have been here ever since.  I knew that I loved the way that My Friend’s Place engaged with the young people but what I didn’t understand was that this would become a place where who I am as a human being would match my professionalism in such a deep way.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Heather Carmichael: There are so many. The landscape around addressing homelessness is under such dynamic change. For years, no one spoke about homelessness and now we have an epidemic crisis. Communities are overwhelmed and LA is in such pain about this. How do we continue to engage communities in meaningful ways so that we maintain momentum towards a solution? 

I feel very grateful to be doing the work at My Friend’s Place, where our main priority is to resolve these young people’s homelessness while continuing to create meaningful opportunities to see the impact and to feel involved. How do we scale to that in a meaningful way? A multitude of things got us here and it will take a multitude of things to fix this. We need to create meaningful opportunities to get our community and supporters involved in understanding and being a part of the solution.

There needs to be advocacy to ensure that these young people are not lumped in with adults.  How these young people entered into this horrific situation is hopefully just a moment in time and very different for each person. We have folks with jobs and young intact families but with rent increases can no longer afford a place to live, if you can re-stabilize a family like that they will probably be able to continue on with a healthy stable life. Then you have folks with mental health issues and the intervention is different than with that intact family. Then you have someone experiencing domestic violence and that intervention is different. The Foster Care kids come out ill-prepared for adulthood without family, or any community support to manage their transition into stable adulthood. There are so many issues and what is the right intervention for one person is always different. for another. We really have to be thoughtful about what is the right way to support and help these individuals for their particular crisis and not approach this only as a housing crisis.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Heather Carmichael: I think understanding that I can be a part of a community that can create connection and opportunity that can be a game-changer for one young person, a hundred or thousands…it just blows my mind. To be a part of that moment in time when a young person makes a connection. It is like watching your child take their first steps and watching that is what it feels like. The only difference is bringing the community in to watch it and to be a part of it.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Heather Carmichael: My primary interaction with our young people is my foundation for this work. I yearn for this work but now I feel that my role is to bring the community in to witness the work we are doing. Recently we had a young woman, in her early twenties, who was in great distress. To be there to witness, the vulnerability, to hold the pain and the possibility of something different. This is really about being a part of a community, keeping us connected to beholding one another. I think this is a role that both faith-based communities and nonprofits share, keeping us connected and beholding one another.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had and What has your impact been?

Heather Carmichael:  The 1400 youth who come to My Friend’s Place each year are impacted by feeling safe, cared for and by the opportunity to partner with us to change their lives. The thousands of people who come to be a part of a transformational community. Both are super valuable impacts. We are all the same in our desire to feel whole and to contribute. Every day we work to make the ordinary extraordinary.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Heather Carmichael: I have had to challenge myself to be seen, to step on stage, to walk that carpet, that goes on the radio or television and to develop an extroverted part of myself. That being seen does not drive me but I have learned to express my love and confidence in what happens at My Friend’s Place. Our mission and our youth. fuel me but being out front does not, I want the spotlight on this mission.

How has this journey changed you?

Heather Carmichael: I am so steeped in this work. Who I am as a person is who I am in all parts of my life. I feel very grateful to be where I am so I can be who I am. My intention was never to be the Executive Director and I stepped into this role with great hesitation but my love for these young people won. 

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for My Friend’s Place, what would that be?

Heather Carmichael:  My dream for My Friend’s Place is to be resourced in order to resource the staff and to swiftly resolve the crisis of youth homelessness. My dream for our young people is to achieve their dreams.

 

CHARITY MATTERS.

 

YOUR REFERRAL IS THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT,  IF YOU ARE SO MOVED OR INSPIRED, WE WOULD LOVE YOU TO SHARE AND INSPIRE ANOTHER.

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Dream Kit

The founder of my elementary and high school knew what she was doing over a hundred years ago when she made the school’s motto Actions Not Words. That motto has defined my life along with thousands of alumni over the years. It is always so exciting to meet a fellow alumna and someone who grew up with the same philosophy of using their gifts to make the world better. Earlier this week I sat down with Marina Marmolejo, a recent graduate student from Yale with a Masters in Public Health, who decided to stay in New Haven to start a nonprofit to help homeless youth. An inspiring conversation about the launch of her nonprofit and App, DreamKit and beyond amazing what someone so young can accomplish to impact so many lives in such a beautiful way.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what DreamKit does?

Marina Marmolejo: We are reinventing technology to end youth homelessness. DreamKit is a web-based App for youth homelessness that supports youth professionally, financially and socially. Specifically through two main functions. The first is to motivate homeless youth, ages 12-25 to attend events, classes, and activities that will help them to escalate out of homelessness. We pay them for their efforts in DreamKit points that can, in turn, be used to “purchase ” gift cards. The youth are essentially earning money to meet their basic needs such as food, clothes, hygiene products. This is our short term solution.

The second part of the App is the long term solutions that are created from the profiles and information gathered on their Dream Kit App that will directly reflect the activities that the youth are attending and track their progress. We then share this information with potential employers, with landlords, mentors in the community to show their positive behavior and the steps the youth are taking to move in a positive direction. The third piece is to engage and connect them to society and the community in trying to reduce the stigma associated with homelessness. Dream Kit is a platform to showcase progress transformation and resiliency among a very at-risk and marginalized population.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start  DreamKit?

Marina Marmolejo: Living in Los Angeles homeless is so in your face. People become callus to homelessness because it is so overwhelming and we feel helpless because there are no clear solutions. Living in LA people cannot help to feel guilty. Something inside of me that made me want to use my skills to make a difference and I honestly had no clue how. Then I took a course when I was at Loyola Marymount University on homelessness that spoke to the problem of homelessness from a mental and physical health perspective and public policy perspective.

Part of the class included living homeless for 3 days and 4 nights on the streets of Skid Row and in shelters. I remember the fear, the fear of being so alone, fear of checking our bags and not knowing about our belongings, which was normal shelter protocol. Fear because we were woken up one night and told to leave the shelter because there were too many registered sex offenders in the shelter and the street would be safer. I remember seeing shelter students my age doing their homework and for the first time seeing the juxtaposition between me as a college student, who has been so lucky, and then to witness youth who just were not as lucky as birth. This experience was my tipping point and Ah-Ha moment when the light bulb went off. You don’t really get it until you are in it and I was barely even in it and it was shocking.

So I started doing research at SPY (Safe Place for Youth) in Venice while I finished my undergraduate degree and decided to get my Master’s at Yale in Public Health. When I got to New Haven I got a job at an organization called PAWS (Poverty Alleviation through Washing Soles) where we provided shoes, socks, foot care, hygiene for the homeless. Professor Yusuf read the article about our work and reached out to me. From our conversations, DreamKit was created to track the progress of the homeless much like a Fitbit giving behavioral nudges and creating a points-based economy for homeless youth. We hired a development team and launched our App last week.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Marina Marmolejo: DreamKit is not a consumer-facing product that has one customer like selling t-shirts but more of a linear pipeline. DreamKit is so reliant on multiple different communities for it to be successful which is absolutely the hardest part. The biggest challenge is gaining trust with our youth, our service providers, mobile employers. How do we connect all of these partners later down the road with our youth?

In order to end youth homelessness or even to attempt to it takes all hands on deck just to manage our fifteen person team, our partners, stakeholders and trying to take care of myself and protecting my energy as well.  Working with this population reminds me that my own stresses seem small.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Marina Marmolejo: Two of the people on our team, Aaron and Ashley, are formerly homeless. I meet with them multiple times a week and hearing their testimonials is what keeps me going. Last week one of our students said, “I’ve never been around so much positivity before.” The work that I’m doing with Adam and Ashley gives me so many Ah-Ha moments. This mutually beneficial relationship makes me feel that I am in the right place at the right time and watching them grow spiritually and emotionally through their work at DreamKit. They absolutely keep me going.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Marina Marmolejo: For me moving the needle has been the incredible support from the New Haven community to support me and this work in this very new opportunity. My Ah-Ha moments happen when someone says they have read about DreamKit and for me moving the needle forward means that we are infiltrating the way that people think about youth homelessness and that we are creating space for DreamKit and shifting mindsets on how we can be creative for solutions on homeless youth. 

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had? What has your impact been?

Marina Marmolejo: First, the way we are treating the homeless top-down through government programs and DreamKit is funding and resourcing from the ground up. The metric is if you do X then you will get Y. We are exploring the bottom-up approach. We are paying the homeless whether we like it or not. If we are paying for the homeless regardless of then introducing interventions when they are young helps us create a new pathway to prevent them from ending up in systems such as prisons or hospitals in the long term.  

We might as well put the money in early to use it as a positive reward-based system as opposed to paying for long term prison stays. It is exhilarating to know that if you give people opportunities for positive behavior then how does that impact larger systems like health care or the criminal justice system. As a society, we are really good at tracking negative behaviors but not the reverse. DreamKit introduces a whole new data set on positive metrics. 

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for DreamKit, what would that be?

Marina Marmolejo: I would love to have proof of concept for DreamKit and be able to scale this to other cities. Essentially, I would love to be able to go to other urban markets and have them leverage the App to operate DreamKit in their own cities. Tech makes this scaleable and people do not realize that these youth have phones. Sixty-five percent of our youth have phones and the other thirty-five percent qualify for free phones through government programs.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Marina Marmolejo: Overall, being able to code-switch. I find myself moving from marketing to research, from business to grant writing. The lesson has been to be agile and switch really quickly.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Marina Marmolejo: I have been in academic institutions my whole life. You learn, you study and give back. I have learned that if something doesn’t exist you are allowed to create it. I am ok with being ok that they don’t exist. I know I have the ability to create jobs and opportunities. We are allowed to create new ideas for our most vulnerable populations and that is what matters.

Charity Matters.

 

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The heroes of 2019

“Nothing is given to man on earth – struggle is built into the nature of life, and conflict is possible – the hero is the man who lets no obstacle prevent him from pursuing the values he has chosen.”

Andrew Bernstein

There is nothing I love more than meeting new people. To me, each new person that I come across is like unwrapping a gift. I love learning people’s stories and what makes them tick. Meeting someone new is a never-ending source of joy for me. Some people collect certain things, I collect people because to me they are what matter. This past year I am so excited about the people that WE met at Charity Matters. When I meet amazing people so do you. Who wants to open a gift and not share it? So before we look ahead to 2020 I wanted to take a brief moment and look back at some of the extraordinary humans and their organizations that came into our lives this year.

We began 2019 with Tracy’s Dogs. The founders of Tracy’s Dogs, Tracy and Scott Whyatt, a Texas-based nonprofit that rescues thousands of dogs and partners them with new homes said to me, “People don’t find dogs, dogs find people.” Two weeks after that interview a dog from Texas named Lucy found us. An unexpected blessing of 2019 and the gift that keeps on giving. As they say, “Charity starts at home.”

photo credit: Classic Kids

Animals were not the only last legacy from the year. We met amazing women who turned their life challenges into thriving nonprofits. The remarkable Becky Fawcett who learned what it cost to adopt a child and turned it into her life’s mission to help families fund adoption with Help Us Adopt.

Jill Ippolito who showed us the power of love and healing with her inspirational work in juvenile halls with trauma-informed yoga with her nonprofit Uprising Yoga. Teaching and training minors in jail to learn how to process their trauma and break the cycle of pain. Jill used her past experience to help reform prisons across the country and heal generations of children who have experienced trauma and inflicted it on others to learn a new path towards healing. Jill is a truly lovely human and reminded me that whatever gift it is that we have, we need to share it with the world.

Then there was Marcella Johnson who lost a child at birth and used that pain to fuel her nonprofit The Comfort Cub. Marcella and her team provide healing weighted stuffed teddy bears/Cubs to help those mothers who grieve. We had such an incredible conversation that we set up lunch after and a friendship was born, she is a truly special human.

Marcella wasn’t the only new friend made in 2019, Roberta Lombardi the founder of Infinite Strength was so inspiring with her mission to financially assist women going through breast cancer pay for things such as daycare. We talked for over two hours and could have kept going. She is remarkable with her passion for serving and supporting these women and a true girls girl. I adored getting to know Roberta.

This year was not just about the girls, there were amazing men accomplishing unbelievable work, one of them was Seth Maxwell of the Thirst Project. At 19 years old Seth discovered how many people on this planet live without clean drinking water and made it his life’s mission to change that. Now at almost 35, he has. Seth’s organization has actually taken that number from 1.1 billion people without access to clean drinking water to 663 million and he is still going strong. More than that Seth is using his passion to inspire thousands of high school students across the country to join him in his mission.

Speaking of missions we met Colin Baden, the former CEO of Oakley sunglasses turned nonprofit founder, who continues to find ways to use technology to support Veterans with Infinite Hero Foundation. Colin’s humility and commitment to our Veterans left a lasting impression on me and the thousands that he serves. Our conversation left me in awe and reminded me that true heroes serve from a place of humility and Colin is a true hero.

While we met so many incredible and inspiring humans this past year there was one person whose positive attitude, commitment to joy and service left an indelible mark on me. His name is Hal Hargrave and he is the founder of The Be Perfect Foundation. Hal is a paraplegic and his organization works to help provide wheelchairs, cars, physical rehabilitation and a list of services for those with spinal cord injuries. Hal is someone who chooses joy and to live his life in the service of others.

All of these nonprofit founders serve humanity each and every day in so many different ways. I loved every single person I had the privilege of meeting this year and I loved introducing them to you just as much, I wish I could highlight them all here. 2019 was an amazing year and I am excited about what this New Year and decade will bring.

I think the perfect way to wrap up 2019 is with a quote from Hal Hargrave. I think Hal speaks for all the remarkable nonprofit founders and heroes when he said, “I fear not being on this earth more than anything because I know there is more that I have to give to this world and that I have more in the tank. I have an opportunity to either live life for myself or for others. It is an easy decision every day to live my life for others. The most interesting thing about it is that I am always the benefactor, whether it is a smiling face or a new attitude. It makes me a better and more aware person each time this happens. “

Wishing you a Very Happy New Year!

Charity Matters.

 

YOUR REFERRAL IS THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT,  IF YOU ARE SO MOVED OR INSPIRED, WE WOULD LOVE YOU TO SHARE AND INSPIRE ANOTHER.

Copyright © 2019 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

SPY Safe Place for Youth

“We must all work together to end youth homelessness in America.”

Jewel Kilcher

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what A Safe Place For Youth (SPY) does?

Alison Hurst: Homelessness is our number one crisis in LA County. We created a one-stop-shop where young people who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of homelessness come and access to a whole array of services to assist them while they are homeless and also assist them getting out of homelessness and into stability.

We provide all of the services one would need including; education, employment, health and wellness services, housing and case management services and of course a sprinkle of fun stuff because young people need fun stuff like our healing arts program which provides music, art,  poetry, meditation all ways to lure our young people into our services because young people need different things. All of this is topped off with really awesome food, access to showers and clothing. Today we have nine comprehensive programs that make up our continuum of care. All of our programs weave together to meet the different needs of the young people we are serving.

Charity Matters: What was the moment that you knew you needed to act and start SPY?

Alison Hurst: There wasn’t one moment but rather a series of moments. The initial moment was in 2008 when I would take my son to the skateboard park in Venice Beach and see all of theses disconnected kids at the beach, which were actually sleeping on the streets.  I’m from London, where we didn’t have a large population of homelessness, but when I came here to  Venice Beach and then Hollywood I realized that we had a massive problem with youth homelessness and we didn’t have many resources here on the Westside of Los Angeles. That was the initial spark.

When I met with other nonprofit organizations that were working with the homeless population, I realized that people just didn’t seem to know what to do with the unhoused youth.  One of the other initial sparks was when I realized that even the other social service providers didn’t know how to meet the needs of the young people and that they didn’t believe that they wanted the same kind of resources. Even the old Federal policies entitled “Runaway homeless youth” which placed blame on the youth. These youth didn’t run away, they were tossed out and thrown away, neglected and abused.

In learning all of this, I immediately began handing out food packs to these kids on Venice Beach with a bunch of volunteers and realized once I got engaged with the youth that there was literally nothing that separated these kids from the kids in my normal everyday life, other than the fact that they had nowhere to live. The system had colossally failed them over and over again. The epiphany was that I became super engaged in the cause and I thought I could impact that cause by handing out food and very quickly realized that was not enough and started to build the program.

In the last eight years, we have become the leading provider for homeless youth on the westside. We now have a staff of 59 and eight years ago we had zero staff and a handful of volunteers and today we have hundreds of volunteers. While our growth is great the fact remains that more young people are falling into homeless than any other demographic and by young we mean ages 12-24. When we started SPY it was literally to meet the needs of hunger and then as our expertise grew so much of this became around policy change. We have worked with local businesses, government, individuals and the community to help us to be a part of the solution.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Alison Hurst: The biggest challenge we currently have is fighting the housing project that we are trying to expand. While having almost 60,000 folks residing on our streets has increased so has the neighborhood opposition to siting any kind of housing program.  Through Measure H and HHH, there are resources provided to build more crisis and critical need housing. The opposition from the community is being slowed down by neighbors’ opposition to all of these projects.

Having access to general housing funding is top of mind always but getting neighborhood buy-in on the two very large projects we are involved in, one is a 54-bed shelter for youth homeless shelter. We have never had a youth shelter ever which will transform the landscape and we continue to face enormous opposition. The second project is a 40 unit development that we will be operating. We have one hundred youth a day currently walking through our doors and we haven’t had any opposition but with these projects, we have had a lot. There is a lot of NIMBY or not in my back yard.

There is a lot of fear and shame. the shamefulness of what we have when there is so much unbelievable wealth all around us. So the shame that comes with recognizing the levels of poverty and drivers of homelessness. Rather than letting that shame motivate you to do something, it becomes a fear of others. I think it is much easier to write people off if we think that they are different from us. The truth is there is very little that separates us and once you come face to face with homelessness you can not deny the commonality between us.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Alison Hurst: The young people we serve. I regularly feel that I am pushing a boulder uphill. As you grow your budget gets squeezed and there isn’t always funding. What drives me is that I have to stay connected with the young people we serve. Every member of our team, myself included, spends a portion of their time in direct service with the kids to stay connected to the work. I have to be apart of the work so I don’t make decisions that are not based on reality. 

Charity Matters: When do you know that you have made a difference?

Alison Hurst: When we moved into housing. We had one housing program that we launched last year. We were literally placing young people in the spare bedrooms of community members and we were the first agency in LA to do that. In February of this year, we launched into a transitional housing program and to me, that felt monumental. For years we didn’t have anywhere for these kids to go and nothing to offer but love and connections to resources but now for the first time we at least have 20 young people safely off the streets. We are getting ready to launch a third program for young pregnant homeless youth and families.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what success you have had and the impact you have made with SPY?

Alison Hurst: I think there is a combination of things that make us feel that we have had success. From the number of young people, we have moved safely off the streets, which was 127 last fiscal year and I think the number of young people that we have connected to education and employment. Because the two things are absolutely dependent on each other. Over one hundred youth that were connected to education and employment and the additional 127 who are off the street.  At the same time we served 1,400 youth and we still have a long way to go. The annualized national number of youth homelessness is around 10,00 young people between the ages of 12 and 25. 

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for SPY what would that be?

Alison Hurst: I would dream that we would continue to grow our housing resources and add an additional transitional housing program, that we would execute on our Venice Beach bridge housing project. That we can continue to be the first in the class agency that provides a hopeful, safe space for young people to access services and wonderful place that provides employment opportunities for people who want to be a part of the solution as well as a wonderful place to work.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from starting this organization?

Alison Hurst: The learning curve was SO steep and SO challenging, it feels like being in a Master’s program for the past eight years.  I left school at 15 and have never been back. I don’t have a Ph.D. or a fancy degree and never in a million years did I think that I would be here. I learned early to always hire people smarter than you. More than that SPY is all based on relationships, connection, community, and our youth members. Everything we do is about creating connections and community for everyone involved. We would be nothing without all of our community partners. Power in the change happens when you bring everyone to the table.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Alison Hurst: I think this journey has impacted me the most in my level of listening and understanding around poverty. I am a much more serious person than I was before because a huge weight has been put on me.  I am a much more focused person than I ever was which motivates me. This work never ends it is 24/7 but I am fearless, absolutely fearless and I never stop. SPY is all about light and love and I am not afraid to use the word love, it is the underpinning of everything we do.

Charity Matters

 

If you are so inspired feel free to pass this along. Who doesn’t love to hear about all the good in the world?  You will make someone’s day!

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The Birthday Party Project

 

photo via: today.com

We all strive to use our gifts for the greatest good and purpose. We spend a lifetime honing our crafts and talents and usually putting those skills into our careers. For many of the nonprofit founders I have interviewed there is a moment when they realize that their skills and gifts can be used for a bigger purpose, one beyond their job. That is exactly the story of Paige Chenault the Founder of The Birthday Party Project. Paige spent her career as a high end party planner, organizing extravagant weddings and events to create lasting memories for her clients. Last week, I had the opportunity to meet Paige and attend a fantastic party to help support her beautiful mission of bringing joy to children living with homelessness.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what the Birthday Party Project Does?

Paige Chenault: The Birthday Party Project is a nonprofit that throws birthday parties for children who are experiencing homelessness. The Birthday Party Project partners with homeless and transitional living facilities and we host birthday parties for the kids that are staying there.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start  The Birthday Party Project?

Paige Chenault:I was on an airplane reading a magazine article about kid’s birthday parties and for almost a decade I had been in the party planning business, so I was getting excited about my  daughter’s upcoming birthday and the party I was going to throw her. As I flipped through the magazine and saw images of these picture perfect parties thinking that I could totally do this for my daughter Lizzie.

Then I put that magazine down and picked up a Time Magazine with an article about children living in Haiti and the extreme discrepancy between the party that I had envisioned for my daughter and what I saw this child in the article living in every single day. That was the moment that it hit me that I could do more with the gifts and talents I have been given. There were children that were out there that would never know the power of a celebration of people coming together. In that moment I knew that I was the one to do something for these children.

I do believe that we are called into service and absolutely do feel that I was called to this. 

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Paige Chenault: Some of the biggest challenges that we face has everything  to do with the amount of interest we have for people to get involved with our mission and the kids that we are serving and celebrating. Knowing that so many people realize that these children are human beings going through things that are incredibly difficult and traumatic. These are families that are truly experiencing crisis and whether they are in sex trafficking rehabilitation programs or if they are chronically homeless or in a domestic violence agency trying to get help and to stay alive. These families are facing things that we don’t have to face.

In knowing that there are measures in place that allow children and families to feel safe and because of that we have worked really hard on the way we celebrate with kids. Treating people with dignity is our ultimate goal and we have worked very hard with our birthday enthusiasts which is what we call our volunteers to do this. There is a tremendous opportunity for people to get involved with our organization. Yet, we still can’t seem to catch up with the excitement around our mission.   We have scaled incredibly fast in these past eight years and to celebrate in fifteen cities is incredible for us. What we do know is that we do things well and unless we can do them in honoring our agencies and shelters and continue to keep up with the excitement and enthusiasm can be a challenge for us sometimes.

I think as founders I think it is really important that we stay true to our core values and that we let those be our guide post. I can see where it could be very easy if someone wanted us to do this and that moment that we begin to do things that don’t align with our values that is the moment when there are tension points. We have worked very hard to honor our core values, be good stewards of the dollars we have been given and that we are serving our kids and families well. These are hard lessons to learn as a young entrepreneur.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Paige Chenault: Our core team of volunteers, our party coordinators, these are volunteers who host parties on our behalf all around the country. For me, those are the people that fuel me the most because when I am so tired and can’t take one more call or email or whatever it is…I have the opportunity to look online and see what they are tackling for us on our behalf and it is so powerful to see the way that they are giving of their time and resources to serve our mission. We are extraordinary in that way because we have 150 party coordinators around the country who show up on our behalf. Some of these people have been doing this work for almost eight years with us.

Our retention rate is really high and we have worked really hard to care for those people because these are the folks on our team who are doing the work. I have a team in Dallas and we call ourselves the support team because we need to support our volunteers/party coordinators.

Charity Matters: When do you know that you have made a difference?

Paige Chenault:I get really energized when my team comes up with great ideas solve a problem, when we get it right and everything goes really well or when I get emails saying that this was the best experience I have ever had volunteering. Those are the moments for me that I am most proud of the work that we do.

 We do have stories of impact and the ways in which our kids are impacted. I would say those moments are extraordinary and incredibly special.  We have immediate impact with our work but the ripple effect takes ages to come back. Recently, I had the opportunity to truly run into someone who she said to me, “Do you know you celebrated my 14th birthday with me when I was living at a shelter?” I had never met her before and I was at a speaking engagement and she came up to me and she was now the youngest intern ever at this company and for me it was incredibly special and this was my moment. It was everything for me.

 For me that was a four year gap before we saw her again and she still spoke so fondly of her party in such detail and to me that speaks volumes to level of work that we are doing making lasting moments that help me over come those hard days of the grass roots building of this organization. We are leaving lasting effects on the children that we are serving and that is what matters. These moments are the greatest gift that have been given.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about some of the successes you have had?

Paige Chenault: We have celebrated 10,000 children’s birthdays in eight years and we have done that alongside 50,000 children. So we have celebrated 10,000 birthdays with 50,000 children there with us celebrating. We have done that with the help of 38,000 volunteers which we call our birthday enthusiasts, which is extraordinary to me. That is a lot of kids reached, a lot of birthday cakes.

We have done that with our agency partners or transitional living facilities or homeless shelters. The Ronald McDonald House is a prime example of a transitional living facility. Covenant House is a teen living facility and there we celebrate children 17-23 and often these kids revert back to their childhood because they never celebrated a birthday before. We partner with domestic violence agencies, sex trafficking rehabilitation programs and then we have homeless shelters and emergency shelters which are typically 24 hour facilities .

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for your organization, what would that be?

Paige Chenault: I think there is an opportunity to go big and give people an opportunity to have experiences that they would never otherwise have the opportunity to be a part of. Yes, I want every child in America to feel celebrated and yes I would love to take The Birthday Party Project internationally but in addition to that there is always room for us to do more for others. I want to partner with people who dream really big. Allowing kids to experience Disneyland, or a movie lot or having a larger than life birthday party in the middle of a field. I just want them to see how creativity can bring people alive. 

 

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Paige Chenault: I think I am more sure of who I am as a wife and a mother and a leader. I have always been empathetic, compassionate and a giver and I have always expended most of myself for others. I now realize that I don’t have to do it all or be the hero of the story. So for me, the narrative that has switched since this endeavor. It doesn’t have to be about me but it really can be about more and everyone together and thank goodness for that because there are plenty of others who can share in the joy of this. It is like taking off the cape and the in charge mentality and saying people there is plenty to go around.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Paige Chenault:I think for me the biggest lesson for me is that we gain people’s trust when we operate from a place of authenticity and vulnerability. If I were to continue along this journey with all the answers or needed to be the person with the first and last word, we would have crumbled by now. I think for me it was incredibly important as we brought people into the fold that I was incredibly honest from the beginning that there was a lot that I didn’t know but that I knew we needed to it.

By sharing just who I was and what my strengths and weaknesses were and by being able to share that with the people around us we created a movement. People realized that I didn’t have all the answers but maybe they had a piece of the puzzle and by allowing them to do what they do best and to get out of the way, we were able to build this incredible community of these magic makers that I trust and that trust us.

That has probably been the biggest take away from this experience. When we get out of our own way and rely on the expertise of others that is where community is built and that trust exists in those moments and when you are able to do more. I believe strongly in the power of people but allowing others to find out what they are capable of is even more rewarding.

Charity Matters

 

Copyright © 2019 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

One For All

“Believe with all your heart that how you live your life makes a difference.”

Colin Brown

I have always believed in angels among us and the conversation I had earlier this week with nonprofit founder, Mari Rodriguez was proof to me that angels are here on earth. My dear friends have been involved with supporting Mari and her work to provide the most underserved children and families in her neighborhood of Inglewood. Mari came to the United States at age 19 and taught herself English. She became a citizen and a nurse. She raised a family and people in the neighborhood were coming to her for help with their children. First, it was a few and then a few more and then a hundred and now hundreds. Mari, is living proof that one person can change the world and one of the most amazing humans I have had the priveledge of talking too.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what One For All does?

Mari Rodriguez: One For All encourages students to stay in school, graduate from high school and we give these students and families the supplies and guidance they need to accomplish that.  Our mission is to help build the character of our children through social programs that emphasize the importance of personal growth as well as develop the community as a whole.

We do back to school backpacks and supply drives, toy drives for winter, we have students bring their report cards and if they are getting a 3.0 GPA or higher they are rewarded for good grades and if not we get them tutoring, we do prom dress giveaways and whatever students need, sometimes its as basic as a pair of shoes for school, we find it and help. The biggest thing we do is give $500 scholarships for those students with good grades who are going to college.

We currently serve over 500 students a year between the ages of 5 and 18.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start One For All?

Mari Rodriguez: I lived in Inglewood and saw that the children in my neighborhood didn’t have guidance. So, in 2001 I talked to the pastor at our church on the corner and asked if we could use the church parking lot to help children and families. Then we started an event on our street to gather everyone together but our neighbors were so impacted and the neighborhood couldn’t accommodate everyone. I wasn’t sure what to do because I was still working full time as a nurse during the day and raising my children and helping all the neighborhood children at night and after work.

In 2007, I had a patient that kept telling me I needed my 501c3 and I had no idea what these numbers meant or what that was. While I was working in the doctor’s office a patient asked me about what I do in my free time and I told him. He said I needed my 501c3 and his wife would help me. She did and in 2007  One For All became an official nonprofit organization. 

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Mari Rodriguez: Donors. The hardest part is raising funds.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Mari Rodriguez: (Tears) The love of people. The love of people fuels me. Sometimes I want to quit and think I cannot go on and then people hug me and thank me for helping them. When families need me. This is my purpose in life to help others.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Mari Rodriguez: I think of all the people whose lives I have touched. From a five year old girl who died of cancer and whose funeral I did because her mother just couldn’t, to the young boys who were becoming gang members and we were able to get them to change direction, to the young man who was gay and thinking about suicide for fear his parents wouldn’t accept him.   I got involved and this boy is now a wonderful and happy young man in college with his family’s support.

When I close my eyes I see myself on a journey helping, going forward, helping, helping and not looking back just keep going and helping. I see the hugs, the smiles of all these people and that is my reward. I love this country with all my heart. I came to this country at 19 with nothing but dreams. I dreamed I was going to do something big.

I taught myself English and with the help of two angels went to nursing school. It was such hard work and my life has been so good. I have to give everything I have received. I am so grateful.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had?

Mari Rodriguez:We started with 25 kids in 2001 from my home. Then we had 100 and then 200 kids and we would close down our street to do our events. Our neighbors asked us to take our events off of our street and we moved our programs to the church in Inglewood. Today we help more than 500 children and families. This year we will distribute over thirty $500 scholarships for our students who are going to college.

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for One For All, what would that be?

Mari Rodriguez: The dream I have is to find more supporters. We need more school supplies. I dream of finding someone who can donate backpacks. To me, the most important thing is to keep giving more scholarships to motivate these kids to stay in school and to help us really help them.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Mari Rodriguez: It hasn’t changed me, I continue being humble and treat everyone equally. I really do not like to talk about me. I would rather just help others. 

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Mari Rodriguez: I have learned that anybody can help somebody. Nothing is too little to help another. Each individual can help somebody. If you can not give money you can give love or conversation to someone who is lonely. Anybody can make a difference in the world. To start a nonprofit with an intention to help others is enough. I am just happy to help these families.

 

Charity Matters.

Copyright © 2019 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

Family Promise

Every one of us has passed a homeless person on the street but not every one of us stops, especially when we are in a hurry. That is exactly what happened to Karen Olson in 1985 on her way to a meeting in New York City.  On an impulse Karen not only stopped but she bought the woman, named Millie a sandwich. Karen began speaking with Millie, who explained to her that homelessness brought about profound feelings of disconnection from society and a lack of self-worth.  That moment changed everything for Karen Olson and from that meeting, she began to look at a new way to try to help connect those in need to those who wanted to help. Little did she know that this encounter would become the birth of Family Promise.

Earlier this week I had a fantastic conversation with Claas Ehlers who is now the Executive Director of Family Promise, as Karen stepped down a few years ago after almost twenty-eight years at the helm. Claas not only has a personal connection to this mission but has been working at Family Promise since 2002. I can’t wait to share the rest of this story and enlightening conversation with you. It is remarkable what one sandwich did and continues to do for thousands of homeless families across our country.

Charity Matters:  Tell me a little about what happened to Karen after the sandwich and The beginning of Family Promise?

Claas Ehlers: So, in 1985 the number one reason the State of New Jersey was placing children in foster care was not because of abuse or neglect but because their mothers had become homeless. At that point, homelessness was a relatively new phenomenon and family homelessness was totally unheard of concept. In 1985, you thought it was an urban problem of single homeless people but not of families out in the suburbs. Karen had worked in the city with individual homeless people but when she discovered the statistic about children and families she got motivated to do something.

Karen decided to arrange a conference and was smart enough to recognize that the faith community would be engaged in this. There were over 80 congregations represented by over 200 people at that initial meeting, in late 1985. She simply asked the question, “What can we do about this problem of family homelessness?”

Congregations said we want to do something more meaningful than writing checks. The initial thought was to get a church or synagogue building and turn it into a shelter. Then these congregations realized that they had space and they had volunteers who already wanted to help. The YMCA offered space, Autoland gave them a discounted passenger van so they could offer transportation. So out of that meeting in an ad hoc way the program started. 

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Family Promise does?

Claas Ehlers: We are a national organization, somewhat like the headquarters of McDonald’s but we don’t actually make hamburgers here. What we do facilitate is to empower families towards success and we mobilize volunteers and we cross those over so that each one is stronger as a result of the other. When we look at empowering families, we are looking specifically at families that are experiencing homelessness, which is not a sharp line….there is a lot of blurring, people that are at risk of homelessness, people who are nearly homeless and people that are experiencing homelessness.

Overall what Family Promise does is provide more than just shelter for families but a holistic solution that includes the prevention of family homelessness and the stabilization of families at risk. What we do here is to try to maximize our affiliates so that they can serve as many families as possible and engage the community in ways that bring in many more resources than one might expect to address the issue.

Charity Matters: How did Family Promise Grow so quickly?

Claas Ehlers: After that first meeting it took about a year and a half before we were operational and in October 1986 we officially started serving families. Neighboring communities began to see what we were doing and the program took off organically and kept spreading to Philadelphia and Ohio.  In addition to shelter, meals, housing and job support our affiliates began developing programs for transitional housing, childcare, and homeless prevention. In 1988, Karen said,” we should make this a national organization.”  As a result, we renamed our national organization Family Promise. Karen had a vision from the beginning. We are so lucky to have incredible engagement with communities across the country who are innovative with how to solve their communities problems. 

Charity Matters: What are the biggest challenges in your work?

Claas Ehlers: One big challenge is that people do not understand family homelessness. People view homelessness as chronic singles homelessness and the bigger issue is housing and stability. Another challenge is to ensure that we have resources to meet our mission and overall awareness of our work. We recently had a piece on the Today Show that did a wonderful job telling the story of our work in a very compelling way. (click above to watch)

The terrain is changing too with artificial intelligence and how is that going to affect jobs and homelessness?  We are thinking about these things. We do have a goal to increase the number of people we serve but at the same time, we think about how are we going to push the bell curve to the right. We are always trying to find out ways to help our affiliates do their jobs better.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Claas Ehlers: Certainly there are always lots of challenges and obstacles but I wake up every morning feeling like I am the luckiest person in the world. I have the most amazing team, they are mission-driven, talented, and work well together. I go out into the field and I work with a group of volunteers who are so committed to having an impact on homelessness in their community and that is just SO inspiring.

The other side of that is the alumni of our program, the people who serve on our guest advisory council. I work with these people who have faced adversity they have been homeless and come through our program and are now committed to helping others be successful by paying it forward. They are working, have families and are dedicating all their time and energy to help others in any way they can. I have my own personal stories and have been in Foster Care but that is nothing compared to what a lot of these stories are. These are people that say that this community supported me and now I am going to give back.

When I see the children who leave our programs and see the future they have that they didn’t have before that keeps me going.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Claas Ehlers: It is a tough question for me to answer because I am self-critical. I always see what I haven’t done. There are so many moments. Recently, when the Today Show piece came out, I emailed it to a number of our partners to share. The responses I received from current partners and potential partners saying, ” I am just so proud that our firm partners with Family Promise.” Those moments remind me of the work we are doing.

This morning, I was talking about the weekend with our relatively new Chief Operating Officer, she told me that she took her children to volunteer for Family Promise. She told me she couldn’t believe that her 14-year-old son was so compassionate working with a 4-year-old at one of their shelters. There are so many moments that show me the impact. Every statistic is a human, a person whose life we touched. There is magic everywhere. There is just magic.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had? What has your impact at Family Promise been?

Claas Ehlers: We always really try to look at how we are successful and how that can drive innovation. First of all, we serve over 90,000 people a year in all different ways and 60% of those people are children. What is really important is that we have our core Shelter Program that is about 18% of the people that we serve. In that program, 88% of those people move into long term housing (traditional, permanent, or shared) after 57 days. We are not about getting people into housing, we are about getting them into housing they can sustain. That is critical that we get them into sustainable housing.

We have 200 affiliates (chapters around the country) that have over 1,700 distinct programs that address some element of prevention, shelter or stabilization that are run by 200,000 volunteers. We are launching a new program at our National Convention this week that trains volunteers to understand the grief and trauma that happens when you lose your home.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Claas Ehlers: I always had a connection with helping children who were under-resourced. My children have been raised with this work. Now that they are grown, I get to watch their service. All of my three children serve and this work has helped define our values. We have always prioritized helping those that are not as fortunate as we are. If we can all just incrementally be better people each day then that is what really matters.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Claas Ehlers: What I have learned is that things are rivers and you have to understand that things are rivers. And that when you are at the river the water at the river is the way it is now but might not be the way it is next time. The water that you see at the river today will be entirely different than the water you see next month. It is higher or lower or not as clean. You have to realize that everything is fluid and that things are never the same at any one time. That every time something changes it is a new opportunity.

CHARITY MATTERS

 

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Copyright © 2019 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

 

The struggle is real…

 

This isn’t my usual post. I am even hesitating as I write this. To be honest I am really struggling with this and don’t know what to do? As most of you know I live in Los Angeles. We happen to have the largest homeless population in the country, with an estimated 58,000 people living on the streets. Many say that the number is much higher. I have spent time on Skid Row, I have fed the homeless and interviewed a number of people who run shelters and nonprofits that support homelessness.  I have a confession to make; not even my teenage sons can make me feel as many human emotions in a flash as someone that is homeless.

When I walk by and see someone who is barefoot, cold, suffering and hungry my immediate reaction is empathy, sadness, then guilt at why do I have so much when someone has so little? Anger, helplessness and most of all frustrated. I have been advised by the Executive Directors of many of these nonprofits that the best way to help the homeless is to help the organizations that support homelessness and not to give money or food…both of which I used to do.

I went to the bank yesterday, where we have a regular homeless man who hangs out by the ATM. I walked by him on my way to the ATM and he says, “Oh good, here is someone who can help.” I smiled and said hello, went to the ATM, looked at him again and told him to have a nice day. His reply, “Look Mrs. big shot can’t share.” I got into my car and started to cry. Tears of frustration, tears of sadness, anger and a host of emotions surged through me. I thought about rolling down the window and giving him money and or an earful about how I serve but what good would that have done? Nothing,  but this encounter really made me think.

I drove away feeling dejected and helpless. I really have no answers just a million questions. How do we as a society address mental illness and help those suffering that can not help themselves? How do we get those suffering from addiction to the places that can treat them? How do we support families or individuals who live paycheck to paycheck that had one bad moment that spiraled into homelessness?

I honestly do not have the answers but watching people suffer is difficult. I want to help. I want to make a difference but the struggle with all these feelings is real. This is honest, not so politically correct but how I feel. Am I the only one? Do you feel the same way? Maybe I am the only one crazy enough to say it out loud and in writing…

I write this from the comfort of my warm home. I have never been hungry or without a pillow, a warm and safe placed to lay my head at night. I have never been without love, family or a job. I am blessed, aware of how fortunate and full of gratitude. I also know that we must do better for those who so desperately need our help. But how? Again, no answers but so many questions. I would love to hear how you feel?

Charity Matters.

 

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