A weekly food drive in East Los Angeles went on just as scheduled Wednesday, helping families in need.
“I really like right here that everybody’s so nice,” said one woman. “It’s really good, the milk and everything, it really does help a lot.”
What she and others may not have realized is that the people helping arrange and hand out meals Wednesday are people who once needed help themselves.
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Since the 1970s, Soledad Enrichment Action has been helping people who were formally incarcerated, along with their families, get the resources they need to help rebuild their lives.
“Our site here in East LA, the vision behind it was a one-stop shop,” said Jess Mendoza, an SEA program coordinator at the organization’s East LA resource center. “We’ve seen so much pain. A lot of our staff, we can understand pain. We can connect with pain. We’ve seen it.”
SEA offers job, legal, education and mental services, even tattoo removal, to people who have spent time in the prison system.
In anticipation of roughly 8,000 people expected to be released from prison statewide by August due to COVID-19, SEA is preparing to help as many people as they can, creating custom plans for each individual--guided by compassion.
“Versus bringing them in and loading them up with programming and almost setting them up for failure, we take it one step at a time,” Mendoza said. “That’s what we believe in. And I think that first step is that human connection.”
Along with Wednesday’s food drive, volunteers handed out a new resource guide designed, in part, by Armando Carmona, to help give people a starting point with regards to assistance they need to bounce back from incarceration.
The guide also features stories of people who have found success in getting help from community organizations.
“I think these are people who have been failed by a broken system, one that hasn’t looked out for them or our neighbors, people in the community,” Carmona said. “I think this guide is a reminder to this population that they are not alone, that there’s been others who have walked similar paths.”
One of those people was Mendoza himself. He’s worked at SEA for about six years, and he has worked as a partner for nearly 20 years, since being released from prison in 1991.
“I was a military veteran. No one knew, no one asked me how to get help, if I needed help,” he explained. “So for us, I’ve always wanted someone to see me as who I’m going to become, not just what’s on paper today.”
And ultimately, that’s the goal of Soledad Enrichment Action, helping those with a tough past realize they’re just like anyone else with the potential a positive future.
“We’re motivated by compassion,” Mendoza said. “And I think that’s the missing element that kind of bridges people together.”