Community of Service: Eagle Rock nonprofits

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The last clause of Occidental College’s mission statement is not printed on the back of your ID card, but for the student questioning what exactly this college might have in mind for us post-graduation, it’s worth a read.

“The distinctive interdisciplinary and multicultural focus of the College’s academic program seeks to foster both the fulfillment of individual aspirations and a deeply rooted commitment to the public good,” according to the college’s mission statement webpage.

This commitment to the public good is exemplified by a number of aspects of the college: the fact that the majority of partners with the InternLA program are nonprofits, the prevalence of the Diplomacy and World Affairs and Politics departments and the Office for Community Engagement.

Outside of the confines of 1600 Campus Road, there are a number of nonprofits in the area that share the college’s mission, whether it be through rehabilitative juvenile justice or a space for free meditation services.

photo by Natasha Carpenter Frank

Recycled Resources

Recycled resources is a Highland Park based organization that provides services for homeless individuals in northeast Los Angeles. It is no secret that gentrification has been affecting the community of Eagle Rock/Highland Park for years. Apartment buildings are being bought out and remodeled, rents are doubling and families that have been in the neighborhood for generations are being evicted from their homes — in some cases, onto the streets.

“The real estate agents come in and say [to the landlords], you know ‘I can rent your place for this much,’ and if we get rid of all these people, I can rent it for this much,” Monica Alcaraz, community relations and housing coordinator of Recycled Resources, said.

Alcaraz grew up in Highland Park and realized the gravity of the affordable housing crisis after working as the regional manager for the Coordinated Entry System, a database system that matches homeless individuals to housing shelters in Los Angeles County. She teamed up with Rebecca Prine, a social worker in the Department of Mental Health specializing in Skid Row, to start Recycled Resources, as they both wanted to go beyond the work they were doing in their day jobs for the homeless community.

“[Recycled Resources] helps me do my job better,” Alcaraz said. I’m able to keep in touch with the people because they’re here.”

According to Alcaraz, the project started from Prine’s home in Highland Park, where homeless individuals in Northeast LA could come to get clothes. Five years later, they moved the organization to the All Saint’s Episcopal Church on Monte Vista Street. Individuals could come to the back of the church on Saturdays for a meal, shower and some recycled clothing, shoes and toiletries. Alcaraz said many individuals also come in on Saturdays to volunteer and drop off anything they would like to donate to the organization.

“My big thing with volunteers is for them to talk to the individuals,” Alcaraz said. “It is good to feed people, but [they should] also get to know them to get a different perspective of what happened to them; like, why they’re experiencing homelessness. There’s so many different reasons, there’s not one reason. People are more than just homeless.”

Volunteers at Recycled Resources provided food for the Eagle Rock community on Saturdays. Photo by Natasha Carpenter.

Optimist Youth Homes and Family Services

In 1906, an Eagle Rock chicken farmer and an LA County juvenile delinquency judge decided to try an experiment. Sil Orlando, executive director of Optimist Youth Homes and Family Services, told us the judge was jaded by the number of kids he saw go on probation time and time again just to fail and end up back in his courtroom.

“[The judge said to the chicken rancher], ‘I’d like you to take a few of these kids on your ranch, teach them the meaning of hard work, get them an education and give them some TLC, most importantly,” Orlando said.

After 13 years of hosting juvenile delinquents, the farmer reached out to their local Optimist Club, a charitable organization that supports children’s causes in communities across the country. The Optimist Club eventually took over the ranch and Optimist Youth Homes and Family Services became an official child welfare agency.

Today, Optimist, for short, is headquartered at the edge of Eagle Rock on Figueroa Street. The campus features 160 beds for male probation youth, administrative buildings, mental health counselors and a charter school for probation and foster youth. The organization, which has satellite residential care and offices across Greater LA, offers a wide range of services to keep families unified and thriving: a foster family agency that recruits and trains foster parents, government-funded residential care, outpatient mental health counseling for at-risk families and the Eagle Rock charter school. All of the organization’s services are free of charge to the individuals they serve.

Despite being one of the largest child welfare agencies in California and being featured by CNN in 2016, not many Eagle Rock residents have heard of Optimist.

“People always tell me, ‘I’ve driven by here for years and never knew what this facility was,” Orlando said.

Children from all over California wind up living at Optimist after committing a crime. Rather than punishment at a juvenile delinquency center, a judge may choose the rehabilitative route of putting the youth on probation in an out-of-home placement. The rehabilitative services offered by Optimist are essential for LA County probation youth, a population in which roughly one in five are gang-involved and one in six have had contact with child welfare services, according to the April 2015 Juvenile Probation Outcomes Study.

Mentors volunteer to help public school students with their homework at the AMP after school program on Tuesdays. Photo by Natasha Carpenter

AMP Studios

If you’ve ever taken York all the way down to the Interstate 110, you’ve likely passed a bright green sign, reading AMP in big vertical letters. Every Tuesday night, AMP is where local Eagle Rock and Highland Park elementary and middle school kids gather for an afterschool program focused on mentorship and fine arts activities.

Around three years ago, Josh Buck, a pastor from Northeast LA, mentored an elementary student named Jesse. His experience opened his eyes to the need for safe places kids could go after school (Northeast LA public schools tend to get out around 1:30 p.m. on Tuesdays) and a better education in the arts. Buck and Program Director Rene Andalon spoke with dozens of community leaders, teachers, police officers and school principals about what the youth of Highland Park needed. Through these conversations, they found out that Northeast LA public schools lacked solid arts programs and small group mentoring.

In the spring of 2015, AMP became what it is today with the launch of their afterschool program. The 15-week semester includes free lunches and homework assistance with mentors. One of the main components of the program is the incorporation of filmmaking. Students receive lessons and work at all stages of film development, including brainstorming in creative groups, script-writing, filming and editing. Hollywood actors, filmmakers and producers come by to speak to the kids from time to time. At the end of the semester, a movie premiere complete with a red carpet and catered dinner is put on for the kids, their families and the greater community.

“Unanimously, the community said, ‘we need something after school, in the arts, for kids that are transitioning into junior high and high school.'” Buck said. “We’re trying to give them access to the arts because they’re not getting it at their local schools, [while also] preventing them from entering a lifestyle that will sidetrack them from being successful.”

Since the program is entirely free of charge, enrollment is competitive. The directors of AMP prioritize local kids from low-income, single-parent homes, according to Andalon.

“We definitely have more kids applying than we have the capacity to serve, in terms of volunteering from the mentors and actual funding,” Andalon said.

AMP is a labor of love for both Andalon and Buck. During the day, Andalon teaches with LA Unified School District. Buck was previously a behavioral therapist for children with autism before starting Antioch City Church in Northeast LA, where he is now a pastor.

Photo by Natasha Carpenter.

Shambhala Meditation Center

At the busy intersection of Colorado Boulevard and Figueroa Street, the Shambhala Meditation Center offers community members a space to clear their mind.

Shambhala is a worldwide meditation organization first started in Colorado by a man named Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1971. Since then, the center has expanded to over 100 locations worldwide and even features a credit union in Colorado and a publishing company.

While most yoga and meditation studios in the area charge sizable monthly fees, Shambhala is entirely funded by suggested donations. Instructors are paid a stipend to teach courses but the center encourages a donation of $140. If that cost presents a large financial burden for individuals, Alice Tooney, center administrator of Shambhala, works with them to find a price that they can pay.

“We want everybody who wants [to participate in our groups and courses] to have the opportunity to be here and to learn meditation and to have support for their practice,” Tooney said.

Tooney, who is also an actress, joined Shambhala after reading about the practice in 2008 and has been a member and volunteer ever since. Members of Shambhala are those who regularly attend sitting sessions and events and pay a monthly donation to the center.

“As we continue on the Shambhala path, we learn many other practices to help us break through the ancient crust of ego and awaken to the joy of fully living in this world. Awakening and opening, we discover the world to be naturally sacred, pure and full of beauty,” according to the center website.

In addition to structured weekly courses on the Shambhala Path, the Eagle Rock center also offers meditation groups, sitting hours open to the public on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings.

The meditation groups are led by volunteer members and usually have a focus: a People of Color meditation group, a group for those healing from illness as well as a gay and lesbian group, according to Tooney.

“[Shambhala has] offered me a community and a group of people that I really enjoy being around,” Tooney said. “It gives me something to always be engaging with [and] to [be able to] learn and grow in my life.”

All are welcome to their open-sitting hours on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, regardless of meditation experience or ability to pay.

Home & Community, Inc. 

Sabrina Williams’ path to becoming director of Home & Community, Inc, a food justice homestead in South LA, began with the residents of Eagle Rock.

Williams became interested in community work while traveling with D.C.-based nonprofit, Center for Community Organizing, to protest against the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s demolition of public housing projects to put up more profitable real estate. While on the road, she noticed that access to fresh, healthy food was another important issue plaguing the communities she was working with.

Williams decided to come back to her hometown of LA to test out her new idea. With some seed money from her grandmother, she established an office in Eagle Rock and started going door-to-door in the neighborhood advertising her new business: installations of raised vegetable beds that families could plant vegetables in. The biggest challenge at first was gaining the trust of the residents Home & Community was trying to help.

“A lot of people feel they don’t deserve help or have seen so many people come in and try to give them help, and they don’t trust you. People come to communities all the time and promise things, and then they’re gone. They come in and they go. It was at least a year’s worth of effort of staying there, proving that we were there for good,” Williams said.

After a couple years of spreading the word and building trust with the community, Home & Community set up a farm in the middle of South LA. They also created the South LA Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Development program, which offers job training in agricultural technology. Individuals can take classes in business and marketing so they can take the skills they have learned working on the homestead to go out and start their own agricultural business.

“We’re trying to do several things,” Williams said, “Give people access to fresh food, and a way to make a little bit of income. Now if they turn it into something bigger, fantastic, we’re on board with that. Third, [we want] to create communities. A lot of the overage that they grow, if they don’t take it to the market, they’re sharing it with their neighbors.”

After some training, Williams said that undergraduate volunteers can come to help lead workshops, but they are also always welcome to work on the plants alongside South LA community members. Williams has previously frequented Occidental’s campus for lectures provided by the Urban and Environmental Policy (UEP) Institute. She said UEP students are the perfect volunteer for the organization, as it incorporates policy, food justice, ecosystem development and community involvement.

Although the project’s farm and offices have since relocated to South LA, Williams said Home & Community’s services would never have been possible without the business from the Eagle Rock residents 17 years ago.