June 20, 2017

The Giving Tour: Adopt-A-Block

Every Saturday hundreds of volunteers serve the most underserved communities in LA. It all started in the year 2000 when a young pastor named Matthew Barnett set his desk outside on his church sidewalk. When someone walked by he asked "How can I help you?"

From what I understand, that's how it all began. He started with mowing lawns and doing anything to help the people in the community. All the while, he built a community and started something much bigger than himself. Today over 135 blocks have been adopted. Every Saturday all of these volunteers go to the Dream Center (please check this place out-- everyone was so incredibly welcoming and they have an amazing mission!) and either drive or are bussed to blocks around LA. These volunteers help in all sorts of ways by bringing food, hygiene items, clothes and whatever else these people need. 

We were lucky enough to be assigned to Nickerson Gardens.  We drove there as we had to take Edson to the airport later that day so we got a full view of the neighborhood. We saw candles and nearly deflated balloons in front of one home-- evidence of a murder. It was only doors down from where we were volunteering. 

A few facts about Nickerson Gardens (as provided by The Dream Center's Adopt-A-Block):
  • Nickerson Gardens is located in the Watts neighborhood
  • There is an estimated population of 41,028 with 17,346 people per square mile. It puts Watts among the highest densities for the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County
  • Watts is 61.6% Latino and 37.1% Black
  • The median household income is about $25,000 a year with over 4,500 households making $20,000 or less
  • Only 2.9% of the Watts residents 25 and older have a four-year degree and over 10,400 residents have less than a high school diploma
  • The median age is 21 and over 16,700 residents are 18 and under
  • With over 1,054 units, Nickerson Gardens is the largest public housing development west of the Mississippi River

We were part of a team of people that were setting up a fun zone for all the kids in Nickerson Gardens. They set up game stations, played music, had food, fun and raffle prizes. Volunteers went door to door inviting everyone to come out and join us. 

Niko spent time showing kids how to use a pogo stick, Cayenne ran around making new friends and everyone wanted to hold her. Edson and Reno threw a ball around with the kids and worked some of the game stations. I met a particularly special new friend who did not let go of me the entire time we were there. 

It was eye-opening for all of us. Not only did Edson meet a former gang member now turned volunteer for Adopt-A-Block. He told him that the week prior they had to leave early as they'd received threats and believed that the bus was shot at. The mood was happy and no one seemed any bit concerned about what had occurred the week before. WHAT?! (my reaction exactly!)

At one point while we were all playing one little girl came up to us asking if we'd seen a cell phone. I recalled seeing one on the garbage can the kids had been using for a game. I went back and looked for it to no avail. I asked one of the girls I'd been chatting with if she remembered seeing it. She immediately went on the defensive. She was 8. She said "I don't steal. Do you want to check my bag?! I don't do that kind of stuff!" I was so taken back. I couldn't believe it. I told her I didn't want to check her bag. I was just asking because we'd both seen it. It was unreal. The idea that this little girl immediately thought I was accusing her of stealing blew my mind. I felt bad. I felt for her. My 9 and 11 year old's would never think that as their first thought when someone asked them a simple question. Her innocence was gone and it was truly saddening. 

We left that day and talked in depth about what we'd seen and experienced. It was hard for the boys to wrap their heads around it but I do think they understood. When you aren't living that life, surrounded by theft or murder it's just unfathomable. These kids live it every day and I'm so thankful we were able to be a part of something that brought joy to the kids at Nickerson Gardens. Even if it was only for a few hours. 

Adopt-A-Block is making a huge difference in the lives of these kids. It was obvious that most, if not all of the volunteers that were there that day are there every week. They had a connection, a bond with the kids and their families and it was incredibly touching. 

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