Members of the UCLA Luskin community gathered at Wattles Farm on Oct. 7, 2017, to serve as leaders during UCLA’s Volunteer Day. Once on the farm in the heart of West Hollywood, this assorted group of Luskin faculty, staff and students organized and worked alongside UCLA undergraduates to participate in ongoing work there. Wattles Farm is an organic community farm whose mission is to provide the area’s diverse local population with a rare opportunity to participate in sustainable agricultural practices. Luskin volunteers not only got to spend a morning aiding with maintenance of a sustainable mainstay of Los Angeles, they also further united with UCLA and the greater Los Angeles community through conversations and life stories shared over snacks of oranges, granola and water. Hover over the image below to access a Flickr gallery of photos taken that day by Aaron Julian.
Rosalinda Vint, president of Women of Substance and Men of Honor, talks about her own experiences in the foster care system and how that motivates her to make a difference for youngsters struggling with abandonment and loss as she did. Photo by Les Dunseith
By Stan Paul
Just one visit. For those whose lives are entangled in the pipeline of the juvenile and adult justice systems, the life-changing meeting might come from a family member. It could be a psychologist. Or a chaplain. Or it could never come at all.
For many, though, the visitor is a volunteer — someone who can make the difference between continuing a downward spiral through the criminal justice system and turning a life around.
“The cycle continues until someone breaks it,” said Ernst Fenelon Jr., who was part of a Nov. 3 panel speaking about volunteers who help those incarcerated in America’s juvenile detention centers and adult prisons. The event also launched a new book co-edited by UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Social Welfare professor Laura Abrams. It was sponsored by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Department of Social Welfare, the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin, and the UCLA Justice Work Group.
The book, “The Voluntary Sector in Prisons: Encouraging Personal and Institutional Change,” was published “to highlight many examples of great practice, of volunteer programs that make a real difference behind bars … and impacting not only those who take part in the programs, but the volunteers,” Abrams said. She was accompanied by one of her three co-editors, Emma Hughes, an associate professor and chair in the Department of Criminology at California State University, Fresno.
“This event, and the book itself, is intended to honor volunteers in jails and prisons, juvenile and adult institutions, who devote their personal and professional time, travel long distances and overcome numerous bureaucratic hurdles to reach out to those locked on the inside, whose humanity and dignity is often limited by the very condition of incarceration itself,” Abrams said in her introductory remarks.
Abrams said that the work of her colleagues and co-editors highlights many examples of great practice, impacting not only those who take part in the programs, but the volunteers as well. “Unfortunately, this evidence of good practice is not well-known, so other volunteers have to keep reinventing the wheel, rather than benefitting from the experiences of others,” she said.
The co-editors pointed out that volunteers themselves are very diverse. They may be formerly incarcerated, currently incarcerated, teachers, musicians, artists, students or people of faith. A unique feature of the book is that it includes the voices of a number of people currently serving time, in addition to the 19 contributing authors from the United States, Canada and Britain.
“You may be that one person,” said Fenelon, whose 25 years of experience with the California prison system includes more than 14 as an inmate. He is now the program coordinator for the Prison Education Project (PEP), a “prison-to-college” program that seeks to enhance the educational experience of inmates and parolees while providing practical tools for reintegration.
“You’re here because it is a calling,” Fenelon told the audience of academics, social welfare students and volunteers, some of whom also had been wards of the foster care, juvenile justice and adult prison systems in California. “The best people to speak are the volunteers,” continued Fenelon said. Like himself, they “speak from a voice of unique experience,” and “sat where they sat” and they strive to “reconnect [those incarcerated] to their humanity.”
He was joined by Rosalinda Vint, president of Women of Substance and Men of Honor Inc. Vint, who grew up in the foster care system, has been “that one person,” Hughes said in introducing her.
“All of us have a friend or relative touched by the system,” said Vint, whose nonprofit organization provides mentoring, leadership training and other services for the Department of Juvenile Justice Ventura Youth facility. The former corporate executive, who left a successful 25-year career to reach out to foster youth, said it is a privilege to serve those who, like her, have suffered abandonment and loss. Recounting her own and her siblings’ experiences within the foster care and criminal justice systems, Vint paused, as her voice cracked with emotion. She continued, “This has changed my life, what I do. I wish someone would have come for me, looked me in the eye and said it is going to be OK.”
The relationship between two of the event’s speakers, Felix Miranda and Matthew Mizel, is an example of the significant difference that volunteering can make in the lives of both volunteers and those they help.
Miranda was raised in Nicaragua and he “saw things that no kid should see.” He was angry when he came to the United States, eventually ended up in trouble and lost 13 years of his life to the prison system in California. Mizel, a native of New Jersey, had a successful career in the entertainment industry before becoming a volunteer with Inside Out Writers in 2003, teaching creative writing in juvenile and adult facilities.
They met while Miranda was imprisoned, and the experience was transformative for Mizel, who was volunteering with the nonprofit organization founded in 1996. Mizel is now a doctoral student in the Luskin School’s Department of Social Welfare, where his research focuses on ways to reduce racial inequality in the justice system.
“I had to grow out of that phase,” said Miranda, who was recently released from prison and is now a member of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC). “You can make a change.”
Miranda said that at first he couldn’t understand why Mizel kept showing up to his prison visits, and more than once asked him why he would do this.
“He came every week — that’s what impacted my life,” said Miranda, who also is now a member of the Inside Out Writers alumni project. He credits Mizel “for the love and friendship he showed me,” and the writing program for the positive changes he experienced.
“Don’t just show up,” Miranda said about volunteers’ need for perseverance and engagement. “It’s the follow-up that matters.”
According to Hughes, the book is also intended to show correctional officials and policymakers how valuable this work is. “All too often volunteers are confronted with insurmountable hurdles in terms of red tape and bureaucracy when trying to access facilities.”
Hughes added, however, that she is encouraged by recent changes.
“I am heartened that this year, CDRC (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) has a mandate to establish a volunteer advisory committee at every adult prison, with the intention of better supporting volunteer-led programs,” Hughes said.
The evening’s presentations also included a moving spoken word performance by Harry Grammar, who brought students from his New Earth Arts and Leadership Center, a comprehensive re-entry center serving 2,500 young people each year who are incarcerated in Los Angeles County detention centers and placement homes.
Ricardo Quintero, left, UCLA Luskin's interim director of development, works with UCLA students to clear weeds at Wattles Farm. Photo by George Foulsham
By Stan Paul
With a little help from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, a group of new Bruins has found a way to forge a new path — from day one.
As thousands of Class of 2020 UCLA students fanned out across Los Angeles to more than 50 sites, 45 freshmen volunteered at Wattles Farm — a lush oasis just off L.A.’s famous Hollywood Boulevard — where they helped clean up more than 4.2 acres of pathways at the community center.
Luskin staff helped coordinate the activities and served as UCLA Volunteer Day task captains at the community garden. The Luskin School has adopted the site and coordinated the volunteer effort at Wattles Farm for the last three years, according to Marisa Lemorande, director of alumni relations and director of social media at the Luskin School.
“This aligns well with the Luskin School’s commitment to service,” Lemorande said. She also donned a yellow task captain shirt and worked with the busload of Bruin student volunteers.
“I wanted to help out the community,” said freshman Tiffany Hoang, a biology major who worked with fellow freshman Susan Munguia, an applied mathematics major, filling a wheelbarrow with organic materials for use on the paths.
UCLA junior Leah Broukhim said the event was a great opportunity to connect with students and make sure that new students “get good feelings” for UCLA from the start.
Faculty, staff and Bruin upperclassmen also volunteered to pitch in and supervise some of the work — clearing paths of weeds and stubborn roots, and smoothing out the winding walkways. UCLA Luskin staff members Ricardo Quintero and Ari Gilliam and Public Policy alumna Amanda Daninger also were on hand as volunteer supervisors.
Toby Leaman, who serves as board president and co-head garden master at Wattles, said the farm has participated in UCLA Volunteer Day since it started. “We are so thankful,” Leaman said. “It has helped us so much. We are grateful for UCLA helping us out.”
Leaman, who has been with the community garden for 23 years, said that Wattles farms reaches out to the community by giving tours and hosting students and organizations to show adults and children how things are grown. The gardens include pumpkins, squash, coffee beans and various fruits, as well as herbs and a wide range of native plants.
Also stopping by was Los Angeles District 4 councilmember David E. Ryu, a UCLA alum. “This is a hidden gem,” Ryu said. “I love Wattles Farm.”