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In the four years that Mike Mojarro has been executive director of Living Hope Compassion Ministries, his philosophy about charitable giving has changed so drastically that he sometimes laughs when he thinks about the contrast between his first year and now.
To illustrate his point, he recalled how excited he and Living Hope staff were when they created its bike give-away program for vehicle-less poor people. The idea was that bikes would improve impoverished people’s lives by giving them transportation to medical care, shopping, social services and jobs.
“When we first started, we were so pumped up,” he said with a laugh. “We were giving away bikes! We thought that was awesome!”
One of the first bike recipients was a man who happily rode off on his new bike. He returned 24 hours later with a request for a second bike. The man explained that the bike he’d received from Living Hope the previous day was stolen from where he’d parked it.
Suddenly, Mojarro didn’t feel so awesome.
“We were fools!” Mojarro said with a laugh as he shook his head. “I was like, no, no, no! That’s not how it’s going to be!“
After some reflection, Living Hope staff acknowledged that even some of their most well-intentioned actions – many implemented during the organization’s start 20 years ago – were inadvertently helping sustain poverty.
As Mojarro and his team re-examined the concept of charity, they decided to go out on a limb and become a platform for pure change. Their goal: responsible charity. They placed more emphasis on helping people help themselves, and less emphasis on hand-outs.
They regrouped and retreated from Living Hope’s earlier identity as part soup kitchen/ part drop-in center for recovering addicts and the homeless.
They embraced the concept of becoming a lively, interactive, opportunity-filled space with expectations of client participation and accountability.
Case in point was the bike program. After Mojarro’s enlightenment, Living Hope started requesting $5 and proof of a bike lock from adults who wanted a bike. Kids who wanted bikes were offered token-economy opportunities to earn bikes by doing things like mowing lawns for the elderly, or filling a Hefty bag with litter, until the youngster had gathered enough points.
The benefits were twofold: a new bike and a feeling of pride that came from having earned something through hard work.
Mojarro, who’s also a businessman who owns Buff Detailers, said part of his epiphany coincided with reading the book, “Toxic Charity: How Churches Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It)”.
The book so inspired Mojarro that he bought 10 copies to share with such other fellow faith-based organizations as The Good News Rescue Mission and Bethel Church.
As Mojarro spoke he reached toward his office bookshelf to extract a copy of the book. He laughed, empty-handed. “I’ve loaned them all out!”
Living Hope’s about-face mindset explains, in part, why the non-profit organization no longer serves free meals each day to the homeless, and why it no longer passes out free food in the park, and why it discontinued the clothing closet.
Not that there’s anything wrong with handing out free meals or clothes to the needy, Mojarro said, but the north state has a number of non-profit programs that provide those services.
“There are places set up for emergencies, and they do a great job at that,” Mojarro said. “We wanted to put our energy into corrective measures to break the cycle of poverty.”
That’s not to say that Living Hope won’t help in an emergency, because it will, such as during a recent triple-digit heat wave.
As temperatures hovered around 112, Mojarro posted a call on Facebook for bottled water, and received 100 cases of water that he loaded inside ice chests in this truck. He and another Living Hope helper drove around Redding and passed out water bottles to people.
But Living Hope’s day-to-day focus remains fixed on responsible charity, which included Living Hope breaking free from the redundancy of charitable services. It wanted to be the kind of fresh and innovating place that offered employment skills and opportunities to help lift people up and beyond poverty and homelessness.
They abandoned the passive-consumer model. They invited and encouraged clients to become active participants, and even producers through a collection of programs:
Neighborhood Networks Food Co-op
The room that used to hold wall-to-wall free clothing now headquarters Neighborhood Networks, one of the most successful charity-based food co-op models in the United States. Living Hope’s Neighborhood Networks is one of the only ones of this model on the West Coast, and one of about 10 of this kind in the country.
Four groups of 40 participating Neighborhood Networks members rotate turns for weekly access to donated fresh and non-perishable food donated by such places as Trader Joe’s. The working membership model allows needy people to maintain dignity while demonstrating participation and accountability in exchange for food.
Mojarro noted that only 20 percent of the Neighborhood Networks members are homeless; the rest are comprised of the working poor, some of whom bring their children to participate.
Everybody helps, even the woman in a wheelchair who’s responsible for roll call.
The day begins at 8:30 a.m. sharp with a meet-and-greet, devotions, and complimentary breakfast. After members help unload the trucks, set up tables, create and place food-category placards and arrange the food, at 9 a.m. they then “shop” the room for what they’d like and need.
About the devotions, Mojarro said that although Living Hope is a faith-based organization, staff members are respectful of those with other belief systems. Clients are told during the food co-op orientation that it’s OK for them to opt out of the devotions if they conflict with their beliefs. So far, nobody’s taken Mojarro up on on that option.
“We don’t want to push our beliefs,” Mojarro said. “We’re Christian, but we don’t preach the gospel. Some folks are big on spewing Bible verses. We show how we believe by our actions.”
Regarding the food co-op’s eligibility criteria, it’s based upon an honor system, because Living Hope’s Neighborhood Networks doesn’t require poverty-assessment paperwork.
“Maintaining dignity is huge,“ Mojarro said. “Here, there’s no shame or humiliation. But there is participation.”
Members are asked to contribute $3, not for the food, but to make a small dent in the co-op’s operational expenses, such as gas for the trucks that pick up the food.
“When people are unloading trucks, lifting boxes, and wiping off tables, they can feel good about it,” Mojarro said. “It’s not a handout. It’s a food co-op. They can say, ‘I‘m a part of this.’ ”
All remaining food is arranged on tables in Living Hope’s lobby, free to anyone – except food co-op members – who might wander in throughout the day.
Living Hope’s responsible charity also extends to client interactions, Mojarro said. He recalled one day after the food co-op devotions when Majorro asked a homeless woman if she would like to share her thoughts about what had been read aloud.
The woman began to cry.
“She said nobody had ever asked what she thought,” Mojarro said. “We try to talk less and listen more.”
Life Cycles: Bikes With a Purpose
Life Cycles, a full bike shop, is located upstairs from the Neighborhood Networks meeting space. There, a team of repairmen do bike repair and restoration.
The bike-repair guys, who affectionately call themselves grease monkeys, have also developed a vintage-bike specialty, where classic old bikes are given new life.
When they need to buy parts, or get advice, they go to Bikes Etc., where they receive a 10 percent discount, plus the satisfaction of shopping local, despite knowing online offers less expensive options.
“We could get the parts cheaper online, but we want to partner with local community businesses,” Mojarro said.
Many of the bikes are presented to kids who earn them, or saved to give away as Christmas gifts to needy children, or sold to Living Hope clients who can provide $5 and proof of a bike lock. Other bikes are sold on Craigslist, which helps sustain the program and its workers.
Sometimes the Life Cycles team will visit poor neighborhoods where the guys repair bikes for free, especially for children. Mojarro smiled when he talked about the “token economy” response to kids after they wistfully mention that they wish they even had a bike that needed repairing.
“We focus a lot on kids, but we don’t just give bikes to kids anymore,” Mojarro said. “We ask them to earn it.”
Reclaimed Wood & Reclaimed Lives
The adjoining room that used to be a dining room where free meals were served daily is now a woodworking studio filled with piles of wood and towers of canned rubbing wax.
The woodworking shop is one of Living Hope’s most successful vocational rehabilitation programs.
Men and women are trained to refinish furniture, or turn salvaged wood into artisan furniture.
The finished products are sold everywhere from the Rust & Roses craft show to commissioned creations for private buyers.
Some of the furniture has found its way inside upscale homes, antique shops and even in area businesses, like Cicada Grill. Sometimes Mojarro will even spot a piece of Living Hope furniture priced higher and resold by another retailer.
Living Hope’s woodworking program accepts all kinds of solid wood donations (no pressure-treated or plywood), and they’ll even pick up wood.
But Mojarro said that even with something as hands-on and practical as the woodworking studio, and teaching woodworkers to be entrepenuers, there’s a consistent metaphor.
“The theme for us is restoration,” he said. “Society has shunned some of these people, kind of like an old crushed bike, or wood from a burn pile. They’re restored.”
On the third Sunday of each month the public is invited to eat at The Shack (no relation to the former iconic downtown Redding establishment).
Under the direction of Living Hope’s program coordinator, Jordan Stormant, The Shack is Living Hope’s non-profit restaurant. It’s located inside the organization’s facility at 1043 State Street in the Parkview neighborhood, and is gaining in popularity.
The Shack serves wholesome, quality meals created with produce from Living Hope’s gardens. It’s managed by formerly homeless clients, and 100 percent of the money earned from The Shack is re-invested in serving the less-fortunate.
The Shack is also a vocational rehabilitation program in which Living Hope hires and trains homeless clients with the funding generated from The Shack. As Living Hope staff likes to say, by eating at The Shack the public is not merely offering a hand-out, but partnering with The Shack to offer a hand up.
The restaurant is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and August 18 is the next open day for The Shack. That day’s entree selections include: Not Yo’ Mama’s Meatloaf, Pot Pie Empanadas, Gourmet Mac ‘n Cheese, Pulled Pork Sandwich, Carnitas Verde Tacos, and Kitchen Sink Salad.
The Shack is run by Living Hope staff, volunteers and clients. It serves fresh, home-made, locally grown organic food.
Like the Neighborhood Networks food co-op, or Life Cycles, or the woodworking project, or The Shack, Mojarro said each program offers people the chance to learn, and to feel the pride that comes from earning something, rather than having it just given.
“They’re getting skill sets and work history,” Mojarro said. “The things we are doing here are cool and trendy, but what’s really great is we are teaching people how to be entrepreneurs.”
Still, Mojarro said there’s so much more he wants to do. He believes his wish list is within the realm of reality. And he’s going for it, keeping his mission in mind: Responsible charity by helping people help themselves.
Photos by Shelly Shively.
See Part II next week: Living Hope Compassion Ministries: A Big Picture Solution
Living Hope Compassion Ministries is located at 1043 State Street, Redding, Calif. 96001. Its business hours are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. -11:45 a.m.; 1:45 p.m. -3:45 p.m. Its mailing address is P.O. 493996, Redding, CA 96049. Living Hope Executive Director Mike Mojarro can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Program Director Jordan Stormant can be reached via email at email@example.com.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.