For many, present day Venice, California is an attraction: A shopping destination, a weekend getaway or, if you're lucky enough, a scenic new place of residence. But for the nonprofit HELPER Foundation, a gang intervention/prevention organization that has been dedicated to serving the Westside for over 20 years, Venice is and always has been home. Since its inception in 1999, the local institution has expanded its programming to the Mar Vista Gardens Housing Development, as well as other areas across Los Angeles. In neighborhoods whose identities seem to be shifting daily, HELPER has remained committed to serving the Black and Brown community that helped shape the landscape of the city.
However, since March, during a global pandemic that has disproportionately affected communities of color, the agency has seen an even greater demand for support. But for a gang intervention agency in some of LA's highest impacted neighborhoods, this means ensuring staff is equipped not only with PPE and other necessary supplies, but also making sure that they're outfitted properly to remain neutral while out distributing aid and conducting workshops within active gang areas.
That's where Willy Chavarria comes in. A friend of the HELPER staff and fellow California native, the menswear designer stepped up to raise funds and create uniforms to better identify the group as they enter high risk areas. "There is really only one thing that matters and that's how we take care of each other," Chavarria says, speaking to the motivations behind his capsule. "We live in a country that has made clear Brown, Black and regular people not making triple digits are not considered by the government. These communities are forced to take care of themselves. Even in times of life threatening crisis. Maybe especially during a life threatening crisis."
In a time when fashion labels have taken a step back to assess and restructure their product's impact, the team at Willy Chavarria has chosen to double down on their already established brand values. Since the brand's onset in 2016, the Willy Chavarria team has been committed to providing representation for marginalized communities while also employing and giving back to them, as well.
The capsule is comprised of a tee, sweatshort and sweatpant branded with both the Willy Chavarria and HELPER logos, along with a circular graphic featuring the key words that make up the HELPER acronym: "Help Establish Learning, Peace, Economics and Righteousness." The uniforms were modeled by core members of the HELPER staff on and along their distribution route, and the shots feature powerful compositions of the team against a colorful sun-kissed landscape.
Captured by LA-based photographer Carlos Jaramillo, the photo set tells a story that differs from the norm. The images center the people and infrastructure that make up the real Venice, including the original HELPER Foundation HQ, The Vera Davis McClendon Center (currently uninhabitable due to a controversial construction project), as well as a group shot of Program Director Claudia Bracho alongside Becky Bravo, Breanna Gonzales and Vanessa Thomas, three generations of HELPER program members who feel more like family than just affiliates.
"It is the hearts and the strengths of the strongest souls within a community that will rise to protect its people," Chavarria says of the character that HELPER personifies. "I have known Claudia and the HELPER Foundation to be an incredible sign of strength and love in our hoods. Treating people with dignity and respect and sharing love to guide people to be strong, healthy and knowing of their gifts."
In the era of the collab the Willy Chavarria x HELPER Foundation capsule is one of the rare product drops that holds impact beyond the fashion world. To learn a little more about how HELPER functions and to see how the project came together, PAPER caught up with HELPER Program Director Claudia Bracho.
Since it was established in the late '90s, HELPER has offered many resources to the neighborhoods in and around Venice. How would you define what HELPER is and how it works?
HELPER Foundation stands for "Help Establish Learning, Peace, Economics, and Righteousness." We are a gang intervention/prevention agency that services neighborhoods in Venice, as well as Mar Vista Gardens housing development, Culver City and a few other neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles. We also provide intervention with mental health teams and are in partnership with the mental health agency, Star View. We are a violence reduction agency, we are not anti-gang. We are about promoting peace and creating a safe environment for communities that are highly impacted by violence. We have staff who are highly trained to mediate and intervene in gang conflict, as well as other violent encounters. They are able to de-escalate situations and provide rumor control when there is any type of gang violence. Incorrect information being passed around a community could have serious consequences.
This project with Willy Chavarria seems to have come together very organically. How did things get off the ground, and how did you manage to get people involved?
We were in an article in the LA Times around the very beginning of the pandemic, distributing food door to door. I was wearing dishwashing gloves, other guys were wearing gas masks, we had nothing, and it was hard to get a hold of masks and hand sanitizer. Willy is family and when he read the article he reached out. He first created a GoFundMe campaign because we had no PPE supplies during that time.
Willy really wanted to make our job easier because it was scary out there, not knowing much about COVID. As essential workers, we were the only ones walking the streets during the beginning of lockdown. He and I discussed ways he could continue to help us. How do we stay safe? How do we make sure that people in the neighborhood feel safe opening their door to us while we are dropping off food? We needed T-shirts that would identify us as HELPER Foundation, something that would unify us. We didn't have the funds to really go out and get uniforms, so Willy went ahead and started production to create some for us.
But before we even got the uniforms, we were some of the only people walking our routes to deliver food and people just started getting interested. Spanto from Born x Raised, who's also a Venice native, came out and walked with us and gave out his masks to the community. People really started seeing us and they wanted to help.
Venice is really unique in terms of culture and the way it is set up. How did that affect your team's strategy when offering aid during the lockdown?
The Oakwood area in Venice is a hyper gentrified neighborhood, but woven throughout those million dollar homes, there are 15 low-income government buildings. There are other streets with low-income buildings and a lot of undocumented residents, so the landscape and the geography is a lot different. Because of the pandemic and the shelter in place order, I began to think of ways that we could provide food to low income families without setting up a food bank where people have to leave their homes and congregate. Since many seniors are homebound, I thought the most logical thing would be to deliver the grocery bags and school lunches door to door, to the families in need along with unhoused individuals. This came to be our "Drop 'n Go" food program.
"We are about promoting peace and creating a safe environment for communities that are highly impacted by violence."
It sounds like HELPER switched up its process a lot due to COVID. How have you and your staff adapted to accommodate these changes?
Since we were in the community walking door to door our outreach expanded. We were going to talk about PPE and how to keep safe, but at the same time talk about what services we provide. Families became interested and enrolled in our programs, and then our outreach workers and community liaison were able to offer guidance and mentorship to the young men hanging out. We were able to touch a lot more people because it was very intentional and very strategic.
Enrique Fernandez, our community intervention worker for Mar Vista Gardens, connected with the city council and the local school to have HELPER pick up school lunches and distribute them to the community. It was something the kids were really missing because they were not in school. It created a sense of normalcy for them, and they are always so excited when they hear us walk up and yell, "LUUUNCHEEES! LUUUNCHEEES!" Intentional outreach means that we have a goal before reaching the community, you know what your purpose is. In this instance, while we were distributing food we were also informing families about our prevention program, the gang injunction settlement and meeting up with our intervention participants.
The cool thing about this capsule collection is that the clothes mean a lot more beyond just fashion. Can you explain the importance of these uniforms in your everyday work?
The uniforms provided an identifiable link to HELPER Foundation and formalized the Drop 'n Go program. We work in a neighborhood that is gang affected and so if we are a separated identifiable entity that is in a uniform, then we're less likely to be caught up in the mix of any gang issues.
That's really important, especially with COVID and being in the areas that you guys are working in.
Yes, and because we're identified as HELPER Foundation, the uniforms act as a buffer to police harassment, which so many of our staff members and participants have faced. We've got young Black and Brown men walking around and police harassment is nothing new to this community, it happens all the time.
In talking with you and the staff, The Vera Davis McClendon Center seemed to keep coming up as sort of a home base for you all. Can you explain the significance of that building and what's going on with it right now?
The VDC is our home. The late Melvyn Hayward, Sr., father to co-founder Melvyn Hayward, Jr., was the first manager of the center. I worked alongside Melvyn Sr. when I was working with the nonprofit Venice Barrios Unidos in 1998. When Melvyn Jr., Ansar Muhammad and Clinton Noble began Venice 2000 in 1999, they also used the space to hold meetings. We were the original agencies that provided services for the community. We held workshops, leadership courses, dance classes, community meetings, cultural events, food and toy giveaways, after school tutoring, and so much more.
In '99, when the gang injunction was being enforced, the Vera Davis Center was one of the few places that those named on the injunction were allowed to enter without being in violation. This gave us an opportunity to work with numerous young Black and Brown men that were unjustly criminalized. Since that time, we have struggled to hold our space there. We faced eviction, which we fought, and now we are displaced due to its long overdue renovation that has now been carrying on for over a year. It has historical, familial and political significance for us, as we are one of the few Black agencies that has called the VDC its home.
"Young people deserve chances and people can change. Making mistakes is part of growing up and everyone needs help finding their path."
The girls in the photos represent three generations of Venice and three generations of the HELPER community. How have you managed to stay connected to the people you work with over time?
Becky Bravo was a high school student when I worked for Venice Barrios Unidos. She participated in events that we sponsored and was part of that era in the late 90s/early 2000s. In the mid-2000s, Vanessa Thomas was a participant that became a student worker and then when she reached adulthood, worked with our agency as a case manager and a mentor for our wrap around services. Breanna Gonzales is a current participant and her uncle Ricky volunteered with Venice 2000. All three young women have known each other from the community since they were little girls, so it's all very close-knit. They consider each other family.
The foundation of intervention is building relationships. Gaining trust from a population who has a distrust of institutions and outsiders. Through our case management and counseling efforts, and outreach, we grow to know the family, as well as the participant and develop strong ties because we care about them and their well being. We work hard to keep them out of the pipeline to prison, advocate for them in court and provide them with resources, so they also look to us as family. One of the things that stands out in my mind is when a former participant, Jose Perez, told me that what he liked about me was that I never gave up on him. Young people deserve chances and people can change. Making mistakes is part of growing up and everyone needs help finding their path.
With HELPER growing and offering more services every day, how do you envision the organization growing in the future? Ideally, what would you want it to look like?
What I envision is that we would expand and grow and not be so constricted to government dollars so that we can get more workers, because we're not as big as other organizations. We need to hire people at a decent wage, we need resources to be able to run and function. It would help us to get a lot more programming for our young people and their families and to be able to offer stipends to our gang involved participants to be in our program, so that they can start to earn a legitimate income.
The programs and workshops help alter their mindset in a positive way, but you also need to have some financial backing because you want to get these young people away from criminal lifestyles.
We also want to add to our mental health piece. We've got communities that are traumatized and need a lot of healing. Right now, we have a yoga program for our young people taught by our community intervention worker Ebay Williams. He makes it culturally relatable and really engages the young men and women. We want to help them to deal with the trauma that they endure. I would like to see us expand that program, as well as be able to provide in-house therapy with clinicians.
Photography: Carlos Jaramillo
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