Extricating oneself from life as a gang member is not easy. Neither is reintegrating into society after a prison term. That’s why it was a big deal when Homeboy Industries was founded by Father Gregory Boyle in 1988, ultimately becoming what is considered to be the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program globally.
Boyle and others on Friday, Sept. 16, met with first lady Jill Biden, who toured Homegirl Cafe, an arm of the organization, at Homeboy Industries in downtown L.A.
Biden’s visit – only about 30 minutes – was part of a two-day fundraising swing through Los Angeles. Earlier in the day, at a private fundraiser in Hancock Park, she urged donors to work to elect more members of Congress to help push through President Joe Biden’s agenda.
She toured the plant where the goodies are made, chatting with enrollees. She also sat down with Boyle, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis, as well as Homeboy Industries enrollee Johanna Carbajal and senior staff member Eugene Walker inside the cafe.
Homeboy Industries is benefitting from a $2 million opportunities grant from the Biden administration, supporting job training and supportive services, along with a $1.5 million re-entry employment opportunities grant.
Biden, a community college professor, did not take questions from reporters. But when she walked into the plant through the back door, she was all smiles in her pink and green dress. After exchanging pleasantries with Boyle, Garcetti and Solis, she greeted everyone else.
“Hello, everybody, how are you?” she said, smiling along the way. “Nice to see you.”
Biden made her way to where a group of men were preparing pastries for baking.
Next, it was the area where women were putting the finishing touches on baked pastries, decorating them.
Minutes later, the sit-down inside the cafe was at hand. Walker told Biden about what Homeboy Industries has done for him since he got out of prison. Reporters and photographers were kept at a distance, so it wasn’t easy to hear all that was being said, but it was clear how much the organization meant to Walker.
The first lady listened intently as Walker told his story.
“Relationships,” he said. “We build relationships. We don’t judge anyone. We don’t solicit, we don’t advertise. People come here because they’re ready to change.”
One woman, an enrollee, donned a Homeboy Industries T-shirt inside the plant that had on the back, “Things do not change, we change.”
Carbajal told Biden how she became pregnant at 15. When she mentioned she started her college education by going to community college, the first lady seemed excited in the connection.
“That’s where I teach, community college,” she said.
Biden became even happier when Carbajal — now a UCLA graduate — told her she is on her way to law school.
“We’re so proud of you, aren’t we?” Biden said.
Boyle noted that Homeboy Industries now has 11 of what he calls “social enterprises,” Homegirl Cafe being one of them.
“It’s a place for people to train, but also to heal,” he said.
Case management, education services, legal and mental health services, tattoo removal, workforce development and more is all there at Homeboy Industries for those who want to change their lives.
Garcetti beforehand spoke to a reporter about the significance of the visit. He talked about being the grandson of a Mexican immigrant “who was similarly challenged as a youth.”
“He always told me he was arrested by (former Mayor) Tom Bradley, when he was a cop,” Garcetti said. “Helped him turn his life around. So I know about renewal and second and third and fourth chances.
“I’ve always said L.A. is the city of second chances. Homeboy embodies that the most.”
Enrollees said the Jill Biden visit affirmed the organization’s work and growth.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for everybody to see what we’re doing, and what kind of impact we have in the community,” said David Zamudio. “Having someone like that come in and recognize Homeboy Industries, lets us know that we’re reaching out and we’re getting broader, we’re getting bigger.
“We’re starting to reach out to important people that might be able to help us in some way, to grow. We’re a non-profit, so who knows? We might get funded, or get some kind of help from someone else. It’s just good to be recognized.”
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