This past Saturday Homeboy Industries held their yearly fundraiser at Union Station. The event is called the Lo Maximo Awards.
Each year the evening gathers together an unusual stew of people—city leaders, a few celebrities (Martin Sheen and Anjelica Huston are regulars), a swath of LA’s wealthy and semi-wealthy philanthropic types, plus a few people like me who fit into none of those categories but who are simply friends of the program. Most importantly, the night is a celebration for the homeboys and homegirls who either work at Homeboy now, or did once and have moved on, yet always come back and dress up for the fancy yearly event because they feel Father Greg Boyle and his program saved their lives.
The primary purpose of the evening is to raise money. And this year the fundraising need was crucial to the point of desperation. For months Homeboy has been teetering on the edge of being unable to pay its bills. During the pay period just before the dinner, the teetering nearly became a fall into the abyss. It is hoped that the proceeds from the evening will let Homeboy pay the salaries of the men and women working in its various programs for a few more months without having to resort to layoffs—which for many, who have no other place to turn, could mean catastrophe.
As the title of the event suggests, during the evening Homeboy Industries presents “Lo Maximo” awards to a couple of people who have done a lot for the organization. This award-giving is a way of expressing appreciation, of course, but it is also planned in the hope that the honorees’ most affluent friends will show up and write big checks. For instance, this year one of the awards went to Rick Cummings, the guy who launched Power 106, and a longtime Homeboy patron. (As part of the presentation, Power 106 superstar DJ, “BigBoy” filmed a video to trumpet Cummings’ and Homeboys’ accomplishments.)
There was also a tribute to the late, great LA sculptor, Robert Graham, a longtime Homeboy board member, who for years mentored various homeboys in his art studio—one of whom, Juan Carlos Munos, now an artist himself, gave the moving tribute that had Graham’s widow, Anjelica Huston, fighting tears for several long minutes.
Yet the big award of the evening was the Homeboy of the Year award, presented each year to an outstanding former homeboy (or homegirl) who has come a very, very long way.
This year the award went to a guy named Felipe Antonio. Felipe, who is the sweetest of men, first came to Homeboy eleven years ago when he was 17 years old and struggling to get control over his life after being paralyzed by a gunshot wound.
Like many, he came but he didn’t stay. He was feeling too angry, too hopeless.
Three years later, however, he returned in his wheelchair and, with Father Greg’s encouragement, enrolled in school while working at Homeboy, first doing graffiti removal, then learning data entry.
Two years later still, a man who had volunteered to give a few remedial math classes at the Homeboy office noticed that Felipe was hard-working, and also really smart. The volunteer decided to take a chance and offered Felipe a job at his mortgage business. The chance paid off.
Fast forward to today-: Felipe has gotten his Associate’s Degree at East LA College and, with the help of his mentor-boss at the mortgage company, he has finally transformed his immigration status from undocumented to permanent legal resident. In 2007 he was hired by Bank of America where he still works in their Customer Marketing Department.
Felipe accepted the award in his wheelchair,—lifted to the stage, chair and all, by four other homeboy/friends. He announced in his speech that he is training for this year’s LA Marathon.
The other guys and women in the clips and photos each have equally dramatic stories. There is Joey Ray Lucero, once a hard case who spent over a decade of his life in prison, now a highly valued senior staffer at Homeboy Industries, and one of organization’s most in-demand public speakers. (If you watch the video you’ll see that Joey Ray positively bleeds charisma. And, just to be clear, he has the large heart and soul to back it up.)
There is Frances Aguilar, formerly a high-profile female gang member known all over Boyle Heights, now a wife and mother who is one of the few women on her unionized construction crew. “I was late because we just did a cement pour at work,” she said as she slid in beside me at one of the dinner tables. Frances, whose family is the subject of the book on which I’m working right this minute, was the first “Homegirl of the Year” at the 2005 Lo Maximo dinner.
(It is Frances’ happily raucous laugh you’ll occasionally hear in the video.)
There is Ramon Rodriguez who, when I knew him as a teenage gangster in the early 1990′s, often didn’t seem like he’d live out the weekend (And he eventually did succeeded in getting himself shot nearly to death). Now he’s married with kids, a home mortgage, and is one of the So Cal crew managers for a well-known gas and oil company.
The list goes on from there.
Saturday night also marked the introduction of the Homeboy Journal, edited by my brilliant friend Leslie Schwartz together with former gang members turned writers, Agustin Lizama, Hector Verdugo and Maynor Aguirre—all very bright men who were once in terrible shape, whose transformed lives are now nothing short of remarkable.
Robert Juarez, the guy who reads the poem in the video, is one of the Journal’s many featured writers who have recently found their voices and their artistry.
I should warn you that the video above is as jiggly and amateurish as it gets. (I shot it with my tiny digital still camera, simply on a whim, and I am not what you would call steady-handed.)
But the people the video captures are, I think you’ll find, worth braving my lousy film-making.
(Plus there’s also a snippet of the speech that Father Greg Boyle made that night, and Greg is always worth the price of admission.)
And if you have any rich friends who want to help save and change lives—or even semi-solvent friends—please direct them here.
NOTE: The name of the third homeboy in the video is Anthony Collins. He was the one person whose name I didn’t know as I made the video and slide show last night.