“Hey Big Mama,” a homeless man quietly said last week on a brisk Thanksgiving morning in MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. He then joined the line to wait for food served by LA on Cloud9 (LAC9) volunteers.
“Hey Baby,” she replied, as Big Mama continued greeting folks. Behind her hundreds of volunteers set up buffet trays to be filled with a holiday feast big enough to feed an estimated 600 homeless and needy families, as others arranged clothes, vitamins, and a diverse variety of other donated goods.
Among the well-coordinated frenzy were California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) alumni Gerardo “Jerry” Arredondo, his wife, Grissel Chavez, and Omar Merino, who serve on the board of directors of the non-profit charity. They blend in seamlessly as they checked in, provided guidance, and managed the volunteers at LAC9’s third annual Thanksgiving celebration.
“I volunteer to give back to this organization because they have given so much to me. It’s also an honor and a pleasure to help a lot of needy families in this way,” said Big Mama, who 16 years ago came from Texas to Los Angeles, where she is still homeless today. “I used to come and stand in this very line, but now I volunteer to help out with the donations, and meet and greet people.”
Whether it is a homeless person like Big Mama, a struggling family living on the streets, or their pets, Arredondo, Chavez, and Merino regularly make time during their busy careers to help run LAC9, which is dedicated to helping L.A.’s estimated 82,000 homeless individuals and their animal companions.
Along with food, some of the other items the organization provides include toys, personal hygiene products, pet food and pet-related supplies on the fourth Sunday of every month in MacArthur Park. During the week, LAC9 continues to distribute donated goods, as well as offer social services for people and their pets.
When not putting his talents to good use as owner and creative director of AC Grafx Multimedia Design Lab & Commercial Printing, Arredondo (’04, B.S., business administration), volunteers as the vice president for LAC9.
“At the monthly picnics we also have hair stylists and barbers donate their time to bring a smile to people who cannot afford a haircut,” said Arredondo. “They feel refreshed, and it hopefully gives them a boost to encourage them to take the next step toward getting a job.”
LAC9 was founded by its president, Claudia Perez, in October 2013. It grew to more than 20 volunteers in just a few months, and continued to grow rapidly. In June of 2014, it assembled its first board of directors. Along with Arredondo, Chavez (’01, B.S., public administration) serves as funding director, while Merino (’05, B.S., business administration) is the volunteer director. He also works as a medical residency program analyst and project manager for residency verificationfor at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.
“If it wasn’t for our volunteers and supporters, LA on Cloud9 would not have been able to grow and touch as many people as it has,” said Arredondo, who serves as a member of CSUDH’s Alumni Advisory Council. “Each event attracts more than 100 volunteers from all over the Southland. We have learned that some have planned their vacations in Los Angeles in order to volunteer at our monthly events from as far as Alaska, Montana and Vermont.”
On Dec. 13, the organization will host its “Christmas Celebration” to again feed families in need, provide donated toys for as many as 400 children, and provide other essentials for over 500 people, and their pets.
Many of the pets LAC9 helps “seem to understand” what the volunteers do for them, according to Chavez, who is also deputy director of Public Works for the City of Signal Hill.
“Pets, for all people, provide a great form of companionship. For many homeless people, they also provide security and early warning signals,” she said. “We also field calls from many homeless pet owners and provide them with free veterinarian care for their pets. Many rescue operations may not include this, but we feel that this is vital part of our mission.”
LAC9 donors are encouraged to choose where they would like their support “directed.”
“Some people can relate to a person needing shoes, blankets, hygiene items or nutritional items, while others may feel bad for a pet that may have a health problem or need flea medication,” said Chavez.
All three alumni “learned the value” of organization, networking and community service as members of CSUDH’s Latino Student Business Association, according to Arredondo, which comes in handy while working for LAC9.
“[At CSUDH] we organized and assisted in mentorship programs for foster children, clothing drives for hurricane victims, and participated in campus beautification and local community events,” said Arredondo, who is also still an active brother in the Lambda Theta Phi Latin Fraternity with Merino.
In the future, LAC9 is “hoping” to develop more ways to effectively help people get back on their feet and in their own homes, according to Arredondo. He believes that may also require a more innovative plan for temporary housing from the city, or more broadly, a state or federal bill.
“Every little bit helps,” said Arredondo. “Every meal and piece of clothing saves them money, which will hopefully enable them to get over the hump and someday afford a deposit on an apartment.”