Agency Spotlight: RRD Interviews Brateil Aghasi from Women Helping Women/Men2Work

Brateil AghasiWomen Helping Women (WHW)/Men2Work

Provides comprehensive employment support services for all disadvantaged men, women and teens, empowering them to achieve economic self-sufficiency through employment success. When we reached out to our Facebook Contest Winner, Women Helping Women (WHW)/Men2Work, Associate Director, Brateil Aghasi invited us to tour their Santa Ana Client Service Center. She also answered questions about the services WHW provides, the growth of WHW, and general advice for those needing employment support services.

RRD: What are common areas your clients need the most assistance with (i.e. building resumes, interview preparation, etc…)?

Aghasi: Really, all of the above. I made a strategic effort to create comprehensive employment services with multiple programs.  One program without the other just doesn’t have the same effect. If you have the best suit on but do not have a resume or interviewing skills, or vice versa… then you are not the most marketable job seeker.  So you really need to take part in all of our service to be the most competitive. Our demand for all services is extremely high, especially in this economy. I can’t choose just one program, I can’t say job placement is more important than computer classes or apparel is more important than finance literacy workshops. All programs are all so important to each individual and their potential to create a long-lasting economic change in their lives.

Services that WHW does not provide but are very complimentary and our phones ring off the hook for people seeking these services would be for rental assistance and housing.

RRD: How has the face of unemployment changed with the current recession?

Aghasi: There has obviously been a higher demand on services, but I think the people who have been affected since 2008 really includes everyone.  It is you, me, and our neighbor- it’s everyone. Maybe before 2008, there were a lot of middle management jobs, a lot of people in the same job for 10, 20, 30 years making a good salary, with 401K, benefits, vacations, the whole package.  It’s those people since 2008 that have lost their jobs in addition to the traditional low-income population with barriers. This is a big shift, to have people who traditionally have supported a nonprofit now come in and are in need of services themselves. They may not need clothing necessarily, but are in need of computer classes and help with interviewing skills and job search support because the market and technology has changed dramatically. How you job search today is completely different a few years ago.

RRD: Where was WHW 10 years ago compared to today?

Aghasi: 10 years ago WHW was a very small, virtually unknown organization that solely focused on survivors of domestic violence. At most WHW served approximately 700 women with professional clothing a year.  Everything else is new; we’ve really had explosive growth!

RRD: What are the largest misconceptions of unemployment in Orange County?

Aghasi: There are a few, but one that comes to mind is ‘if you have a job, all is well’. In this economy, in Orange County, and nationally, when you have a job you are probably making less than what that job should be paying you. When you have a job, you are probably working part-time and not full-time. This market has changed; having a job now, could mean having 2 or 3 jobs. Pre-2008, a person typically had one job with medical, dental, etc. compared to having a job now, it is essentially not enough.

An additional misconception about unemployment now, is job searching. In this economy, it is going to take longer than 2-3 months to find a job. Even the most qualified and skilled person, it could still take almost a year if not more than a year.

RRD: Can you give us general advice to those entering the job search?

Aghasi: I think everyone tells you to have your cover letter, check your e-mail, very generic basic information. What people are not telling the unemployed or underemployed is that you need to network, because that is how you are going to get a job. It’s going to be through a referral or a job lead that is not made public.  So you have to build your network and be very aware of your personal brand. This is how you set yourself apart from the sea of people who are applying for the same job.

RRD: Can you give us a career fashion tip?

For what we sWomen’s Business Attire ee at WHW, both our female and male clients have a hard time wearing form-fitting pants. No baggy pants or too tight pants allowed at work! It sends the wrong impression. Fashion in the workplace is about setting yourself up for success.  Wearing professional clothing adds to your credibility.  I see it every day at WHW, when a man or woman looks at themselves in a suit for the first time.  They stand up straighter and just shine- they start to believe that they are worthy of employment.  And they are- what a powerful thing!

 

For our readers: Here are a few resources to help those in need of rental assistance.

  • S.O.S. (Share Our Selves): Direct financial assistance is provided upon request for basic necessities including rent, utilities and transportation www.shareourselves.org
  • Mercy House: Rental Assistance, emergency services, crisis intervention, money management, cold-weather shelter, emergency shelter, transitional and permanent housing. www.mercyhouse.net

  • South County Outreach: To receive rental assistance, call (949) 380-8144 ext. 209 for a phone interview and to make an appointment, have all of the documents listed above and a signed lease agreement, eviction notice, landlord email or fax number and bank statement, if applicable. www.sco-oc.org

  • SPIN: Provides move-in costs (first month’s rent and deposit) for permanent housing to low-income working families with children. The GAPP Housing Program is a one to two-year case management program, offering supportive services such as assistance with child care costs, job development, tutoring, budgeting, counseling, workshops, car repairs related to work, as well as other services. http://www.spinoc.org.
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Los Angeles/Ventura Directory Release

2012-13 Los Angeles/Ventura Directory Available this Month!

This month we are releasing the 2012-2013 Los Angeles/ Ventura Rainbow Resource Directory. The changes you’ll find in this book reflect our commitment to grow with this rapidly changing industry, and to put the voices of our customers into action. What other changes would you like to see? Here are some of the ways our books are transforming:

  • We include a CD-ROM with every resource listed in the Los Angeles/Ventura Directory FREE with your purchase of the book! The CD has a searchable database that brings essential information to your fingertips in seconds.
  • A NEW CHAPTER: LGBT Resources and Programs features service providers who address the needs of our friends in the LGBTQA community. It highlights accepting providers of youth mentorship, health services, shelters, parenting resources.. virtually the entire spectrum of services listed in our books.
  • URL-SAVVY: We made an effort to list agencies’ websites whenever we find them to be useful and up-to-date, so that you can verify essential screening information that may change within the span of time you utilize and cherish your Rainbow Resource Directory.

Other Changes

The Orange County and Riverside/San Bernardino Resource Directories will be published every other year from now on. Here are our revised upcoming publication releases:

  • 2012-2013 Los Angeles/Ventura Directory: May (this month)
  • 2012-2014 Orange County Directory: September (this fall)
  • 2013-2015 Riverside/San Bernardino Directory: August ’13 (2011-2013 Directory available for purchase now)

Jerry Brown Names First Latino Poet Laureate of California

ImageApril is national poetry month! On March 21, Governor Jerry Brown appointed Juan Felipe Herrera the first Latino California poet laureate. Herrera’s voluminous work includes titles such as 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border and Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler. The son of migrant farm workers, he explores the unique crossroads of culture, language and race that make up Californian heritage in much of his work. The interweaving of English and Spanish in his writing defies our instinct to identify and isolate these differences, and invites the reader to experience them as a richness of language and experience instead. Rainbow Resource Directory lists many social service providers that embrace cultural and lingual difference in just this way. In each of our listings, we indicate the languages spoken by staff and the types of services provided.

One great example of multilingual, multicultural service is Alma Family Services.  Alma offers a range of services for children and adults with developmental, physical or emotional disabilities, mental health services, child and family development programs, and gang reduction youth programs at locations in East L.A., Walnut and Long Beach. Alma appears in our Counseling/Mental Health chapter and Disability/Special Edu/Rehabilitation. The listing includes their address, phone number, website, payment information, service area, and languages spoken in addition to English (Spanish and Korean).

If you want to learn more about Chicano history and culture, visit the Chicano Resource Center in East Los Angeles. Listed in our Ethnic/Culture/Translations chapter and Libraries chapter, it contains a special collection of books, journals, films and other media about Chicano and Mexican perspectives and experiences, and is open to the public.

Resources for Family Caregivers

The baby-boomers’ retirement and deep cuts to government aid programs will inevitably transform geriatric care in the U.S. But there are a few resources that are important to know about before you take on the role of a family caregiver, that can  improve quality of life for you and your loved one.

RRD: What is the LACRC? 

LACRC: The LACRC is a program of Partners in Care Foundation. Its mission is to provide support to families caring for persons with brain impairing conditions (such as dementia, ALS, stroke, etc.). Our services include information and referral, family care consultations, support groups and caregiver education, among others. Through our work with the caregivers we are able to significantly impact the care that persons with brain conditions receive at home, which prevents early placement.

RRD: What advice would you give to someone who is becoming a caregiver?

LACRC: Caregiving is a 24/7 job for which most of us are not prepared for. Taking care of the caregiver, through education, support and training, is the best thing we can do for caregiving families. Studies suggest that more than 40% of caregivers pass away before their love ones, so you are a responsible caregiver when you take time to address your needs, relax and enjoy life. That actually makes you a better caregiver.

RRD: There are 11 care resource centers statewide: Are the services needed generally the same across California?

LACRC: All Caregiver Resource Centers provide the same services but resources vary depending of each community.  In general, caregiving families need a lot of support and information. Some of them might need additional services such as mental health or counseling.

RRD: LACRC recently added new support groups to its roster of services. Can you talk a little bit about those?

LACRC: We are utilizing new technologies to remove the barriers to services, such as transportation, lack of respite, etc. So we offer support and education through the telephone. This allows caregivers to receive and share information from the comfort of their homes. We have day and evening events so please call 818-847-9141 for details.

RRD: How do you think this type of care, as opposed to nursing home care, affects the quality of life for seniors? 

LACRC: Effective caregiving families are able to cope and develop creative strategies which help the person with the brain impairment continue living at home. These skills can be acquired by attending workshops and classes offered free of charge by the LACRC including Powerful Tools for Caregivers and Savvy. Respite assistance is available, so please call us to find out about our next class. Hundreds of families have benefited from these programs already so allow us to help yours too.

AIDS Work Today: Fighting a Changing Threat

When we reached out to the AIDS Services Foundation (ASF) for an interview, CEO Philip Yaeger kindly invited us to tour their headquarters in Irvine. He also answered questions about the ways AIDS prevention and care work together, and how the changing communities and attitudes currently surrounding AIDS shape these efforts.

RRD: For those who are unfamiliar, what is AIDS Services Foundation?

PY:  ASF is the largest provider of direct services to men, women and children living with HIV and AIDS in Orange County.  We have two main focuses.  Our first focus is to prevent new infections from occurring. We do that through HIV testing and HIV prevention initiatives.  Our second focus is to take individuals who are diagnosed or living with HIV, and address issues that get in the way of getting connected to medical care and treatment.  The research has shown that getting on treatment reduces the viral load within the system, causing the individual to become less infectious. So if we can get as many HIV+ individuals as possible identified, in care, on treatment, with a suppressed viral load, we reduce the infectiousness of our community.

RRD: The Positively Speaking program is a unique one to ASF.  Can you please speak a little on it?

PY:  We primarily visit health classes at high schools and colleges. It’s remarkable to have students sit there and listen to a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, thirty-something year-old woman who lives in Newport Beach talk about her ideal childhood and adolescence and marrying her high school sweetheart, and 10 years later finding out that she was infected with HIV.  And these kids can say “Wow, this could by my aunt, or my neighbor, or somebody else I know, but this doesn’t look like the gay individual or the IV drug user who I thought was living with HIV. This looks different; this looks like somebody I could bump into on the street.” People need to consistently hear about protecting themselves. We need to normalize HIV testing and remove that stigma as much as possible.

RRD: ASF provides a lot of services targeted towards the Latino population. Can you speak on why it’s so important to provide culturally relevant services to this, or any specific population?

PY:  We initially saw HIV affecting the gay, white community. And what we’ve seen over the last 15-20 years is a shift into communities of color. In Orange County, close to 50% of all new infections are occurring within the Latino community. And so it’s been important to us to make sure that every access point for our services is not only addressed with bilingual capabilities, but bicultural capabilities. It’s something that we believe very strongly in. If your clients don’t feel safe and comfortable coming there for services, then they won’t.

RRD: This economy has been rough on the non-profit industry as a whole.  How have you dealt with an increase in demand for your services coupled with a decrease in available funding?

PY:  Beginning back in 2008, we took an immediate and aggressive response to the downturn in the economy by eliminating eleven positions, consolidating offices, reducing our discretionary spending, rent and utilities expenses. We wanted to make sure that we were targeting our resources and efforts at programs that had the highest impact and reached the largest number of people. We have had to cut back in some areas and rely more on volunteers and interns, but we’ve been able to maintain the core of our client services.

RRD: According to your annual report, there has been a large surge in demand for your transportation services (up to a 100% increase in some instances). Do you have any insight into why this could be?

PY: A lot of the basic services we provide such as food, housing and transportation have seen a dramatic increase. Many of our clients are on disability and are living below the poverty line. They might have had part-time jobs or minimal sources of income that were lost during the economic downturn. So folks who may have been able to afford a car lease payment in the past have found themselves in need of that transportation help just to get to a medical appointment. Others may have had a vehicle, but no longer have the resources to pay for gas.

RRD: Your recent client survey states that 98% of your clients believe that ASF’s case management services have made a significant impact on their quality of life.  With such striking remarks, can you please talk a little bit about what your case managers do?

PY:  One day, somebody may call who needs transportation to get to a medical appointment.  Another case that we are seeing more and more often is when someone is diagnosed in the hospital with AIDS, completely unaware of having an HIV infection.  Then all of these other complications arise: typically there are disability, housing and income issues that need to be addressed.

New clients receive an initial assessment and are placed in one of the four levels of case management. The first phase is social services, which usually lasts for at least the first 6 months. Now if someone comes in and they’re actively using substances or they’re homeless, or have active, untreated mental illness, a lot of times, they’ll go to the social work case managers right away because that’s an additional need. For clients who are diagnosed with AIDS in the hospital, a nurse case manager will often to take the lead in securing the necessary medical care and specialists. The very lowest level of case management is self-advocacy. Those folks know that they can pick up the phone and say I’m sick, or I just lost my job, or my wife just left, or I need to come in for mental health. Ultimately, if they can leave self-advocacy and say “I’m now working, and I no longer need food or housing, I’m great,” that’s our goal.

RRD: What are the current trends in new HIV infections?

PY: The CDC is sticking with an annual infection rate of 56,000. In Orange County, we identify about 350 new infections per year, so about one a day. About 25% [of new infections] are under the age of 25.  We’re also seeing a lot more women infected with HIV. Substance use, especially crystal meth use, is often what leads to an infection for many youth.

75% of new infections are being spread by people who don’t know that they’re HIV+. You sometimes hear the weird stories about people intentionally infecting others. The reality is that 97% of people, once they know they’re HIV+, do not infect others. They do everything they can not to infect other people. That’s why it’s so important for us to identify people, normalize testing, and get people on treatment. I know we’ve removed some of the stigma, because people are coming forward. We have a lot of women coming forward and saying “I don’t trust my husband.” There are often a lot of women who just don’t want to know, but now you’re seeing women who say “no, I need to be here.” We even have those situations where the husband will refuse to get tested.

RRD: AIDS Walk is coming up on May 6th. How do you go about planning such a large-scale event?

PY: We are so fortunate to have AIDS Walk at the Disneyland Resort.  Those guys know how to put on events and they know how to deal with large crowds. Our challenge then is to focus on building teams, because that’s really where we’re going to draw the greatest amount of participation and revenue from the Walk.

RRD: ASF, like many non-profits, relies heavily on volunteers to help out in many aspects of the organization.  How can people get involved and what kinds of opportunities are available for them?

PY:  We have opportunities for everything from food pantry help, to office receptionist help, to help and support with special events, which sometimes happen on the weekends for people who have limited availability. The easiest way to find us is to go to our website, www.ocasf.org, or contact Carolyn Spivak, our director of volunteer services and community outreach, at (949) 809-5771 or cspivak@ocasf.org. She can get a volunteer application sent out to anyone who might be interested.

RRD: After 18 years at ASF, what would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?

PY: It’s knowing that I’m making a difference in people’s lives. If I’ve prevented one new infection from happening, did I save that person’s life? Did I help someone get connected to care? Did I give them an extra couple of years? Hopefully we’ve done that many times over. But without knowing for sure, I can at least hope that we’ve made a positive impact on someone’s life.

Agency Spotlight: RRD Interviews Luis Antonio Pichardo from 826LA

826 National is a nonprofit tutoring organization that offers distinctively creative and writing-focused programming at no cost to under-resourced youth across the county. RRD was overjoyed when the Programs Coordinator at 826LA’s Echo Park site, Luis Antonio Pichardo, agreed to an interview. We couldn’t wait to ask him about his extensive experience with nonprofit management and bilingual communities, and the science behind 826LA’s success.

RRD: Briefly describe the programs offered at 826LA and their overreaching mission.­­

Pichardo: 826LA is a nonprofit writing center for 6- to 18-year olds that provides youth in both Echo Park and Venice with the opportunity to develop their literacy and writing skills through creative and expository writing activities. The goals of 826LA, as an organization, are achieved through the generous support of donors and volunteers who help us provide a variety of programs, including After-School Tutoring, Field Trips, and In-School Writing Projects.

I am specifically responsible for the coordination of our After-School Tutoring (elementary-age), Tuesday Night Tutoring (middle- and high-school-age), Journalism Workshop, and ‘Zine Defined programs, all of which take place in the afternoon and evening hours at our Echo Park location, conveniently located behind the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, your one-stop shop for all of your time travel needs.

RRD: What is unique about 826 LA’s approach to academic success and creativity?

Pichardo: 826LA is part of a larger national network of writing centers that started in San Francisco some years ago and has since spread to other cities throughout the US.

In Echo Park, our students arrive on a daily basis at the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, which is a quirky store front that sells a variety of novelty items such as Mammoth Chunks, Caveman Notebooks, Robot Emotions, and more. This is the introduction to our form of academic support that our kids receive. They arrive at an environment that is generally free of any formal “school-influence.”

After-School Tutoring is our most academically focused program, and the agenda is simple: 1. help students do their homework, 2. encourage students to read for 30 minutes, 3. encourage students to write in response to the daily writing prompt.

The student-writing is collected and then turned into a chapbook that the students get to read from when we have our release parties. And, the books are sold in our store. The allure of being a published writer is one of the many things that appeals to our students and results in their social and academic development.

Our other programs, such as Journalism or ‘Zine Defined, have similar end results, where publication is a big part of the sense of accomplishment our students feel. Throughout the writing and editing process, our students are supported by volunteer tutors who help them develop an understanding for the written form.

RRD: One of the most distinctive programs of 826 is the field trip. Can you describe this program for our readers?

Pichardo: Our Field Trips program is, in some ways, a reverse field trip in that we don’t take kids on field trips; the kids come to us. Through partnerships with various local schools, both our Venice and Echo Park locations host full classrooms of children who come to experience the writing and publishing process.

Depending on the age of the class, students will either develop a collaborative story with their own unique endings, or they will create a choose-your-own-adventure book. For the younger grades, the experience is even more intense as they have to deal with either Mr. or Mrs. Barnacle, our sometimes sweet, and sometimes curmudgeonly owners of Barnacle and Barnacle Publishing. The threat of being fired by either Mr. or Mrs. Barnacle causes our staff to encourage the students to write and publish the best story that has ever existed. The students rarely ever receive the Barnacle Stamp of Disapproval. Everybody ends up happy and published, with a copy of their own book to take home.

RRD: You have extensive experience bridging the Spanish and English speaking communities of California as a youth mentor and community liaison. What are some of the challenges and rewards of this work for you?

Pichardo: The rewards of my experience as a native Spanish-speaking person overall have been many. I feel that my cultural identity has been shaped greatly by my personal experience navigating the California state educational system, and this experience has helped me act as a mentor in many capacities to the youth I’ve worked with over the past 10 years or so in the nonprofit world.

Being a native Spanish-speaker, I also feel that I’ve been able to connect with the families I’ve served in many ways as well. The greatest experience I’ve had to-date would be helping youth and their families understand the importance of doing what makes you happy; whether it be through education, small business development, or art.

I didn’t have the experience of benefiting from after-school programming as a youth, and doing art is the only thing that kept me motivated as I struggled to enjoy school. That, in itself, taught me that being happy had to come from me first. It had to come from within.

Art allowed me to experience my own world: a self-generated paradise where I could control my own destiny and not be subjected to the humiliations I once withstood in the real world. That is what I’ve wanted to teach to everyone I’ve ever met; to everyone who ever felt that they were or are in the same situation as me.

One of the largest challenges that most Spanish-speaking communities have is the lack of an opportunity to speak in their authentic voice. It still saddens me to know that, even now, a native Spanish-speaking student only speaks about 90 seconds a day when in school. My hope is to influence enough people in such a way that they feel empowered to speak in whatever language they use.

RRD: 826 LA coordinates troves of volunteers and maintains programs that are dependent on their daily support. How does 826LA recruit and encourage volunteers that are so reliable and committed to its cause?

Pichardo: The recruitment of volunteers is a team effort, but our primary recruiters are our AmeriCorps Vista members (Jonah in Echo Park, and Birte in Venice). As AmeriCorps members, they obviously know the benefits of volunteerism, but we always try to do as much as possible to show our volunteers that we appreciate them and support them, whether through trainings and guidance, or through social events and awards.

Aside from a discount in our Echo Park Time Travel Mart, our volunteers are also invited to participate in other social activities that we coordinate, such as our Book Club and occasional poetry readings. We even had a canned food drive and hangout time for volunteers recently (only because they really wanted to continue giving over receiving)! Our next biggest event for volunteers is our Centaur Club, which will be a small appreciation awards night.

Our wonderful volunteers are truly the life-blood of our organization. We couldn’t do this without them.

RRD: What is a lesson you have learned since working at 826LA, or from the children you have worked with over the years?

Pichardo: I’ve learned many things over the years working in nonprofits. I can speak to both the intrinsic value of working with youth and adults, and I can also speak to the real value of skill development and professional growth.

In all of the years I’ve worked as an administrator of programming, I can say that the most important thing that I’ve learned is that the end result will always be a satisfied customer: a person who feels that they’ve been helped in some form or another.

Working as hard as possible to plan every aspect of a person’s experience when they come to an organization is key to ensuring that a program will have quality, long-lasting results. I’m reminded of that every time I hear from one of my old students. Especially when they tell me how their life has changed because of the guidance I gave them years ago when they thought they didn’t care about school. That is what I continue to carry with me.

RRD: In addition to a nonprofit program director, you are an artist and poet. On your blog, you express the hope to “elevate [your] community through all art forms” and aspire toward a “revolution, based on faith, hope and love.” What is the relationship between your work in social services and in art? Describe the changes to education and/or society that would characterize this revolution.

Pichardo: For a long time, I felt that my art and my job in social services was one in the same. My art reflected a need to call people to action; to empower others to believe that their world is okay and beautiful in its own way, and most importantly, worthy of equality.

In my personal life, I started to wonder if I could sustain that drive to seek that kind of revolution through both my job and my art. I wanted to see a cultural revolution based on empowerment and equality, but I started to feel like it was futile to push for that through my job because of the restrictions in funding and measurable outcomes.

I was devoting as much energy to my work in social services as I was in my art without seeing any results in my job. I needed to take a step back and allow myself to develop as a person and artist. That’s when I left San Diego and moved to LA to earn an MFA in Creative Writing.

Now I feel like it is possible to empower people through art and nonprofits; specifically by encouraging them to practice their own art. The infrastructure, however, has to be set in place for this to happen in the social services world, and it historically hasn’t been, especially where I’m from.

Low-income communities generally are provided with programs that emphasize skill development for entry-level jobs and such, with a fairly narrow view of the potential job markets that are available, thereby neglecting jobs in the arts.

Work-wise, it is now my goal to create a revolution in people’s individual lives as opposed to system-wide. I believe that the revolution has to come from within, and art can be the outlet for that voice of the individual’s revolution. It can also be a revenue generator in the nonprofit world, just like 826 has throughout the country.

In the end, a person’s ability to market their art and their voice leads to personal financial growth, which in turn becomes the power to create an environment of self-sustenance. Investing in a person’s voice and art is like investing in a small business.

If our society learns to value art in its many forms, then our next step will be to empower the individual artist in a professional developmental form. I feel that the new revolution can happen through social services that create economic development zones within low-income communities, and their services can encourage the development of new jobs in the arts, such as graphic design and programming, sound engineering, and more.

Thinking outside of the box in the arts industry will be important to our ever-growing, technologically-based world. The revolution will still be based on equality, but in a socio-economic equality instead of a cultural equality. Once socio-economic equality is achieved, the cultural creators of society will be able to effectively challenge the way that certain cultures are viewed within our society.

A revolution based on faith, hope, and love, is really a revolution that is internalized when it is about the faith a person has in themselves. Faith in oneself breeds hope for better things, and it breeds a love and respect for the individual. That is how I see my roles as an artist and social service provider coalescing. By working in an arts-based nonprofit, I now have the ability to truly make a difference in the voices of the future.

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Agency Spotlight: RRD Interviews Herb Smith from the Los Angeles Mission

This September the Los Angeles Mission celebrated its 75th year of serving the hungry and homeless of Skid Row. RRD recently had the terrific honor of interviewing its president, Herb Smith, who has been involved with the L.A. Mission since 1999. With over 20 years of experience working for nonprofits and a stint as a missionary in Brazil, Smith continues to actively serve at the L.A. Mission for special events and meals. We asked him about the L.A. Mission’s work  and the special challenges it faces with the coming of the Holidays.

Herb Smith

RRD: Can you give a brief description of the services you offer for the homeless in Los Angeles?

Smith: The Los Angeles Mission provides emergency services on-site for the homeless. These include overnight beds, meals, restrooms & showers, clothing, pastoral counseling, and referral services. We have outreach staff to address specific needs such as bus tokens, computer use, Learning Center access or medical needs. In addition to the emergency services we provide 12 month residential transitional housing combined with recovery programs for men and women. We provide supportive services to families through Mommy and Me, food boxes, diapers and formula and other specific needs. Each year we conduct four holiday-themed street meals that target specific community needs with services such as medical care with foot washing, Christmas gifts, hygiene kits, backpacks, school supplies and new clothing.

RRD: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Smith: Simply put, to help people. That can be a smile from someone enjoying a meal to a program graduate walking across the stage receiving a GED and a new shot at life. It can be a mom or dad saying thank you for getting my son off the streets and back into our family. Or, it can be a child saying how happy they are to have mom back in their life.

RRD: The economic situation has put a burden on the non-profit sector. How has your agency been able to adapt to a decline in funding sources combined with an increased demand for your services?

Smith: This economy has been challenging. Social service agencies like the Los Angeles Mission have fared better than some because our services are critical life supporting things like food and shelter. We have had to decrease budgets, reduce staff in “non-essential” areas, add more responsibilities to existing staff and increase our donation requests to the community. We have added social marketing and web advertising to attract new and younger donors. And, we have prayed a lot! Our budget is down nearly 25% since 2007 and our services are constant due to capacity like beds or up in meals and other services.

RRD: Do you anticipate a rising percentage of homelessness in L.A. County over the next several years?

Smith: We do expect to see an increase in homelessness due to several key factors. Government service budgets are strained: service funds are being diverted to housing rather than housing being incrementally addressed. Prisoner release issues have already begun to increase our skid row population almost 100% since August. The overall economy is still very soft especially for unskilled labor jobs. A majority of those we serve are unskilled and will require training for jobs in a recovered economy. And, foreclosures still remain an issue so food, security and housing are challenged in household budgets.

RRD: The L.A. Mission provided over 3,000 meals during its Christmas event last year. How do you and the L.A. Mission prepare for such a rewarding/challenging event?

Smith: We provide nearly 600,000 meals each year. Our street meals are special and require planning several months in advance. Our team selects themes, solicits financial support and food or other gifts in kind. We do outreach to celebrities, media, public officials and others that support the work we do in the community. And we build internal momentum with team meetings, encouragement and prayer for each other and those we serve. We recruit hundreds of volunteers and we train them. At the end we look at each other and say… don’t worry if it turns out just the way we expected; nobody else will know so long as everyone is served and has a fun and safe time.

RRD: How many volunteers donate their time during the holiday season?

Smith: We have over 4,000 volunteers a year, many of them during the holiday season. About 500 volunteers attend each street event, and hundreds help out in advance with the preparation of food, donations, wrapping gifts and silverware, etc. Celebrities and media outlets also donate their time to talk about the Mission and to cover our events.

RRD: Are there any prerequisites for people who are interested in receiving the Christmas meal?

Smith: No, we serve anyone who comes to the Mission without question. That is true of all our meals during the year. We do require that people act safely towards others or they will be asked to leave.

RRD: Not only does the L.A. Mission serve meals to the homeless during the holiday season, but volunteers provide thousands of gifts to children as well. If any of our readers would like to contribute, who should they contact?

Smith: Gifts of toys, clothing, food and other items can be delivered to the Mission dock at 310 Winston Street, Los Angeles. Ideas for items to donate can be found on our website under the Donations + Meet Basic Needs tab. They can contact Tina Russek at 213-629-1227 x 437 or at trussek@lamission.net. Complete contact information is available on our website.