People often ask me how I manage to raise children in a city like L.A. They imply that my hometown is where shallowness abounds while social pressures prevail, where traffic divides communities and, in the absence of a central location, the most vulnerable populations become invisible. When I hear these complaints about the City of Angels, I can’t help but wonder whether the naysayers have ever seen L.A. through the eyes of a child.
My children have taught me that, if you look close enough, you’ll see tiny flowers breaking through concrete and waving their tenacious petals in the breeze. That’s the beauty of children: they can see brilliance in the bleakest situations. With guidance, they can also harness their vision and use their innocence to change the world. As we embark on this holiday season, here are some family-friendly organizations making a difference in the L.A. area and welcoming volunteers of all ages.
Food Forward (foodforward.org) works to fight hunger by collecting fresh fruit and vegetables that would normally go to waste from backyard fruit trees, public orchards, farmers markets and the Downtown Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market. They donate 100 percent of the produce recovered to hunger-relief agencies across eight counties in Southern California, helping feed 1.75 million people.
This innovative organization was founded in 2009 by Executive Director Rick Nahmias. He saw fresh fruit from trees rotting on the ground and, at the same time, saw more and more people in need of assistance. Food Forward was born out of the idea that we need to create a bridge between the abundance of food we have and the people who need that food. For those who want to get involved, Food Forward hosts more than 200 volunteer-powered events across Los Angeles and Ventura counties each month.
Fruit picks are open to volunteers ages 5 and up and farmers market recovery events are open to volunteers 12 and older. Over the past few years, Food Forward has also noted an uptick in the number of parents and kids teaming up to lead volunteer events. They receive training and commit to volunteering at least once a month. “It’s a great way for kids to learn responsibility, leadership and the value of community service,” says Outreach and Communications Director Laura Jellum. At the end of each shift, Food Forward volunteers can actually see the impact they have made on local hunger and food waste.
While Food Forward partners with communities all year, from Thanksgiving to the end of the year the organization is taking donations toward the goal of recovering and giving away 111 pounds of fresh produce each month.
The idea behind Big Sunday (bigsunday.org) is that absolutely everyone has some way they can help somebody else. It started 20 years ago as an annual one-day community service event. Today, this nonprofit organization has become one of the largest community undertakings in the U.S., offering more than 2,000 ways for people to help out every year.
Founder and Executive Director David Levinson admits that Big Sunday was not started from a place of altruism. It was born of frustration and a desire to do something hands-on that truly made a difference. It’s Levinson’s candor that makes Big Sunday a place where people can come to do community service in their own way. He maintains that building community by bringing people together can change lives while also being a conduit to help people discover their passions.
“We see the world not as Haves and Have Nots, but Haves and Have Mores,” says Levinson, adding that everyone, no matter their age, ability or economic status, has a skill and an aptitude to give. “We don’t call people volunteers, but rather we call them participants because Big Sunday likes to blur the line between those giving and those receiving.” Many of the people who receive help from Big Sunday help out as well.
Inspired by Levinson’s assertion that, “we’re all in it together,” I signed up my family to join the Big Sunday team for their annual Spooky Sunday event. The afternoon of dress-up while giving away candy from our decorated “trunk or treat” car was an easy way to expose my 4-year-old son to the joys of community service. Whether working side-by-side painting a fence, planting a garden, cleaning a classroom or participating in its regional clearing house of opportunities to give back, Big Sunday offers people who would not readily interact a shared experience, a learned name and an appreciation for each other’s identity. Big Sunday’s online calendar offers ways to participate on more days than just a Sunday, including 300 ways to help during the holidays.
Kids for Animals (Pasadena Humane Society)
If your child is motivated by a love for animals, there is a volunteer organization made just for them. The Pasadena Humane Society and SPCA launched Kids for Animals to fill a critical need for humane education by providing opportunities for kids to start a movement of kindness toward animals.
The PHS Kids for Animals program (pasadenahumane.org/services/just-for-kids) invites kids to complete at least one service project a year and to share their projects with the Pasadena Humane Society. After a project’s completion, the participating child officially becomes a Kid for Animals and receives a certificate of achievement. Other ways to become a Kid for Animals include attending a shelter activity, monthly Animal Adventurer workshops for ages 8 to 12, weeklong summer camps for ages 9 to 12 and weekly Kids for Animals club meetings for ages 12 to 14. A Teen Club volunteer program also exists for animal advocates ages 15 to 17.
The goal of Kids for Animals is to help instill humane values in children of all ages. To that end, the program also includes a Kids for Animals handbook available online and at the Pasadena Humane Society. In it, parents and children can find a list of programs, service projects and event sign-ups. November is a great time to join in the Kids for Animals fun, for the holidays heighten the need for animal safety and support.
The Giving Spirit
A parents’ powerful influence over a child’s capacity to give can be seen in the life’s work of Tom Bagamane, founder and CEO of The Giving Spirit (thegivingspirit.org). As a child, Bagamane was influenced by his parents, whose example of helping those less fortunate became ingrained in his personal philosophy. Years later, as an adult living in L.A., he was distressed by the vast numbers of men, women and children living without shelter.
In 1999, he created the Giving Spirit, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting homeless people. He started with just three volunteers, and today The Giving Spirit has more than 15,000 people assisting homeless individuals throughout greater Los Angeles.
In order to fulfill its mission, The Giving Spirit holds an annual Summer and Winter Outreach where volunteers of every age unite to assemble survival kits for homeless individuals. These kits contain more than 70 items vital to the survival of those without shelter.
Recognizing the misconceptions among the general population regarding homelessness, in 2016 The Giving Spirit also established its Community Education Awareness Initiative, designed to provide a public forum and dispel myths surrounding the crisis of homelessness. “As a parent, I believe that exposing my children to the work of The Giving Spirit has been crucial to their development, for as young adults they now realize that each soul on the street deserves to be helped,” explains one longtime volunteer.
Children are particularly touched by the enormous community of people gathering together for a worthy cause, as well as the individuals they en- counter while distributing kits with their parents. This year the Giving Spirit has a goal to serve approximately 5,500 individuals.
Sometimes, changing the world starts with one teacher, a classroom full of students and some “kidspiraton.” In 2015, local elementary school teacher Adrien Murphy started a Kindness Club on her campus of WISH Charter Community School in Westchester. The impact of this club designed to create a place where everyone feels welcomed, loved and accepted, has been immeasurable.
Each week students from TK-eighth grade meet in the Kindness Club after school. There, they come up with a theme they are interested in and examine that theme through kindness, empathy, gratitude, goal making, mindfulness and sharing. At every meeting, students make something that they get to keep, something for their school and, in the spirit of being change agents, they also make something for society. Recently, students made kindness rocks with messages of compassion on one side and the instructions “hide again and pass it on.”
Murphy then instructed the kids to hide the rocks in their neighborhood and community, so their message of kindheartedness could reach beyond the gates of their school.
Every year, the Kindness Club also makes cards and collects candy for Operation Gratitude. The group has organized a diaper drive for the charity Help a Mother Out, and students often donate toys to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and Toys for Tots. “Kids absolutely have the power to change the world,” says Murphy. If a student comes to her with a charity or cause that they are passionate about, or even a fun craft that connects to kindness, she is dedicated to helping them put their goals into action.
Kids who can’t readily join a city organization could start a club on their school campus. Parents can sign up to be parent volunteers, and teachers who dream of seeing more positive stories in the news can start Kindness Clubs in their schools. For pictures, craft ideas and steps on how to start a Kindness Club, Murphy has created a Kindness Club Instagram and a Facebook page @wishkindnessclub.
When people ask me about raising children in L.A., instead of discussing freeway routes or celebrity sightings, I would rather share about the soul of this city. It thrives in the hearts of helpers, it inspires a community of givers and it reminds me of the time my son gave his entire wallet away to a homeless man who wanted to get a can of food for his dog. Our common truth is that we are all trying to protect the ones we love. In this season of giving, let’s not only protect love, let’s spread that love far and wide by donating a little of our time.