Feeding hearts and stomachs
by Bernarda Carranza
photography by Nicole Ambrose
A hundred dollars is all it took for Vicki Brown to start an organization that changes the lives of thousands every month. Brown, CEO of DPI Labs, an aerospace company in La Verne, took on a challenge—a Kingdom Assignment. “I was sitting in the back of the Church going, ‘Ok, I never do anything, I should do something. I’ll raise my hand,’” Vicki says. Her Glenkirk pastor asked for six volunteers and gave each $100 from his own money. There was a catch: The money was not theirs but the community’s. They had to help outside the walls of the Church. For Vicki, it became literally seed money, growing bell peppers and donating them to the community. But it was not until she came across a child who asked for “Mac and cheese,” when she handed out a bell pepper to him, that she realized there was a deeper issue at hand—hunger. “I had no idea that there were people in my wealthy community who had certainly been overlooked by me. I figured there were people in our local neighborhood who really were hungry, really had no way of getting food, and I made it a point that I was going to figure out a way to feed those people.”
Vicki discovered Feeding America, a nationwide charity whose mission it is to eliminate hunger in the United States. She was then introduced to the L.A. Regional Food Bank. “They told us that we could create a charity, and that we could become an agency,” she says. What started as a small church initiative pushed Vicki to found a non-profit organization that now feeds more than 6,000 people a month. Sowing Seeds for Life (SSFL) provides a food pantry service, rain or shine, every first and third Wednesday of every month to low income families and individuals from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. The pantry, located at 1350 Arrow Highway, is home to Vicki’s aerospace company, DPI Labs, which manufactures instruments for aircraft. It is not uncommon to find employees building highly technological gadgets side-by-side with boxes filled with food products. Walk into another room, and five industrial freezers and refrigerators dominate the room. “Sowing Seeds for Life has outgrown DPI,” Vicki says.
The non-profit organization was first started in December 2007 and since has grown from providing small boxes of food to receiving more than $1 million in food donations a year. “We had our first pantry, and we were just standing out in the back; we just had 10 boxes of food, and no one knew to come for food,” says Vicki. But as more people found out about the initiative, and the economy declined, SSFL became a second home to many. “By 2008, we were serving a thousand a month, and then the economy fell apart. We were doing all that just to prepare for what we didn’t realize was going to happen to our country, and so every year it just went up a thousand, a thousand, a thousand,” she says.
Sowing Seeds for Life is run entirely by volunteers and funded by donations, donors and sponsors. The government is the main food provider, followed by companies such as Vons, Target, Food for Less, Nestle and Panera Bread, among others. The organization acquired a hydroponic greenhouse August of 2012 in Covina and has since moved it to Glendora, Vicki’s house. This space allows SSFL to have one more source of food income from crops such as beans, red peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers.
Initially, Vicki and her volunteers welcomed everyone who waited in line to receive food. However, as more and more people in need discovered the service, it often became too much to handle. Former client and now volunteer James Scott, remembers that many times it would get out of hand, and the police and fire department warned them about a possible shut down. Traffic jams were the main problem. They have since changed their requirements. “We just ask you two things: proof that you are from L.A. County, whatever that may be—whether it’s a bill, or license or ID—with your picture on it. And that you bring something that is adequate enough to carry the food, because they are going to give you 45 to 85 pounds of food every time. That is no lie,” Scott adds. In 2012, SSFL won a $53,000 grant from the Ludwick Foundation. With the money, the organization acquired a truck with an incorporated freezer and fridge installed, highly needed for the transportation of donated food.
Volunteers run the organization
Besides Vicki, it is the volunteers who make Sowing Seeds a reality. Without any pay, they assist the organization with food transportation, organize boxes and cans of soup, distribute food to the clients, set up tents on pantry days, clean up afterwards, and run the booths set up during food pantry days. “It’s certainly not all about me; it’s about the volunteers. We have around 150 volunteers who help us every month,” Vicki says. They are high school students, college students, DPI employees and people from the community who find it in their heart to help others without asking anything in return. Nonetheless, some of the volunteers are there to help because they, too, were once in need of services from SSFL, and now things have since picked up. “It’s amazing how many times I’ve asked volunteers how they learned about SSFL, and they have told me that they used to come here,” says Larry Stewart, Sowing Seeds for Life publicist.
James Scott is an example, a unique example. “Two and a half decades of drug addiction. That’s my background; that’s not everyone’s background,” Scott says. “Ran out of money, ran out of funds, ran out of things to facilitate myself and ended up coming to her out of necessity, out of pure honest necessity for survival.” He talks about his past with respect and calmness. He is not angry about it, he is not ashamed of it. He has simply moved on from the person he used to be, to become the inspirational, determined and passionate person he is now. He does not forget or repress his past. He is open about it, and about the series of circumstances that led him to Sowing Seeds for Life. “The last thing in the world I thought would happen to me…I’ve always been able to take care of myself. I’ve been working since I was 14 years old, and I’ve been working all the way through that. Even through my addiction. Even at that, I worked to maintain my addiction, which was sad to say. But I managed to do that anyway. I managed to take care of myself up until 2008 when I lost my job, and I was not able to take care of myself for the first time in my life.” Unemployment led James to seek outside help to meet basic and immediate needs. He recalls having to go to the 99-Cents Only store to buy dishwash soap that he would use as body wash, shampoo and laundry detergent. It was not until he saw a flyer near the mobile home park where he lived that he learned about SSFL. His first experience was not pleasant. “[I was] so reluctant, just had a refusal that I was in this position. I didn’t want to go there, but I needed to go there. [I was] so angry at myself.” He remembers going back to his house after receiving food from SSFL and throwing all of it across the floor. “I hated it so much that very first time because I still had my ego. I still had all that machismo stuck inside me, and I had to learn to get rid of it, to put all that stuff on the back pocket or just leave it at home and be a real person. I had to be humble. For the first time ever in my life I had to humble myself. I had to almost bow down to the position I was in.”
The first few months were particularly hard for him. He was juggling his economic situation, attending SSFL to help relieve his hunger and was receiving church support to recover from drug addiction. He turned to religion and grew spiritually. Eventually, he pursued one of the most important parts of his life now: volunteer work. “I was deep in my recovery. [My pastor] said, ‘Get out of your own head, go help someone.’ Best advice I have ever gotten, and I happen to know where to do that.” Six months into being a constant client at the Sowing Seeds pantry days, he started volunteering. “I realized it’s a thing that’s going full circle, where I was at, here relating with all the people on the line. And now I’m on the other side of the line giving to the same people.” James was hooked from the first day, receiving a jolt and sense of fulfillment from giving back to those who helped him. That first night, he went back to his house and searched every possible pantry and charity in the area he could assist. “It’s an introspective of yourself. I’m finding out parts that I never knew existed.” He quickly became active with churches and charities. Soon, he was offered a special position at his church, Foothill Vineyard Church, as a chaplain. “Now I’m coming back to Sowing Seeds as a field minister chaplain, which is a huge step up. Not only do I know where these people are at, I still remember a lot of these people from when I was in there.” Those who remember him, feel motivated by him. “A lot of them have come up to me and said that seeing me has given them inspiration plus a whimper of hope that there is something past this,” he says.
More than just a food bank
Currently, James has a paying job, which has reduced his SSFL volunteer hours. Nevertheless, a present day highlight: two words—Santa Claus. Every December, Sowing Seeds organizes “Christmas in the Park,” an event that allows families to bring their children to receive gifts and have their picture taken with Santa. Vicki highlights that many of these families might not be able to afford toys or a family picture otherwise. James recalls a unique experience. He had just finished taking a picture with a girl and her two younger siblings when she approached him. “This little girl, bless her heart, with this straight look in her eyes, tells me: ‘Thank you and bless you,’ and she tells me that if it weren’t for this they wouldn’t have any gifts, or they wouldn’t have a family picture. She starts crying. I start crying. And again you take it back down, and it’s Vicki and it’s Sowing Seeds, and the whole organization and what they offer. This is what’s awesome about this place, because from time-to-time, week-to-week, you’ll have different people come in and help others, beyond the food,” James says. “It’s agencies, churches that come with clothes, people who come with donated shoes for kids, school supplies for children— just a whole list of things that go beyond the food itself.”
A main goal of SSFL leadership is to “build a relationship encompassed in trust.” They achieve this by helping the families out and by not asking anything in return. Most importantly, they create a judge-free environment where people not only pick up food, but where they can find other services to help them grow. “We just got good at what we’re doing so that people trust us, so that they can come here. It’s not like they have to be embarrassed here. We don’t just hand you a bag of food; we make it like a farmer’s market. Everyone who goes by thinks we’re having a company picnic,” Vicki says. Indeed, SSFL features several booths that encourage education and integration.
One such booth is Enactus (Entrepreneurial Action Us), staffed by University of La Verne students. “Our purpose is to enable progress through the entrepreneurial experience. So, instead of saying hunger and poverty is an issue in the United States and pulling statistics, we act on it. We partake on community acts like this one where we are partnering with Sowing Seeds for Life,” says Paola Portillo, University of La Verne student and president of the Enactus ULV team. Enactus is an international non-profit organization made up of students, plus academic and business leaders who, through the use of entrepreneurial action, actively participate in making a difference to the community. “Big organizations and companies wanted to contribute to the community; this is what you call corporate social responsibility, and they found that a better way is to do it is through student organizations. Enactus was created for this purpose,” says Dr. Issam Ghazzawi, University of La Verne professor of management and adviser of the Enactus ULV team.
University of La Verne students involved with Enactus have partnered with SSFL for the past five years for their Let’s Can Hunger project. Campbell Soup Company donates its products to the cause, and the students also partake in creating campus awareness and participation. “We are also doing a canned food drive in La Verne where we put bins around campus, fill them up [with food] and then bring them out here and distributing them to the community,” says Dakota Bates, ULV student and project manager of Enactus. “Mostly, the work that we do with SSFL is coming up to the food pantry making sure that there are staff available, because there is much work that needs to be done, a lot of prep work beforehand and after. Without us, it is really hard on them,” says Portillo. However, these students do not only want to provide food for SSFL and the families in need, they also wish to have a positive and lasting impact on them. “We call it lasting hunger relief because we don’t want these people to go and stand in line and collect food; we want to help them prepare, to move from the poverty cycle to become productive employees and workers,” says Dr. Ghazzawi.
These future entrepreneurs who make up Enactus plan to help Sowing Seeds for Life by providing its clients with career preparation workshops. They help the unemployed to develop skills such as résumé building and by providing information about career opportunities. Workshops are planned “so we can get people back into the job force. We are here to help them not only to immediately solve their hunger issue. We are here for the long run, trying to get them back on their feet,” says Portillo.
Vicki Brown: A true pioneer
Vicki Brown is admired by her friends, colleagues, co-workers and employees. She is the woman behind the organization that is able to impact a vast number of people in desperate need. Her generosity and determination is an inspiration. “I needed to see not just visually but to see spiritually, to see in my heart, someone out there doing something for someone else without any care for themselves. She’s putting her time and effort. She puts her own business up for this. Her employees love her to death. Before she got those trailers out in the back, all that stuff used to be inside,” James says. “Talk about a zoo…all pallets of food all over the inside. People had little tiny access to their cubicles and work spaces, but they didn’t mind, because it was what was in her heart, and she was doing this for a good cause.”
“The food pantry has gone from feeding a 100 people to more than 6,000 people a month until this day,” Vicki says. This number may seem big for a local organization, but it is based on the general audience for which they are providing. “There’s not 6,000 people going through the line; there are three or four or more people in their family that the food will feed,” James says. Sowing Seeds is not only directly affecting the lives of the individuals who stand in line to receive the nourishment; they are also helping and feeding their family members.
“Instead of feeding my stomach like they were doing originally, all along and continuously they are feeding my heart and my life now,” James says. “It’s more than just showing up early and standing in line, getting a number, bringing your number to the line and having food tossed in there and taking it home. That’s the simplest part of it. It goes beyond that, a lot beyond that.”