Experience is a Two-Way Street

“A hero is someone who, in spite of weakness, doubt, or not always knowing the answers, goes ahead and overcomes anyway.”

Christopher Reeve

It is an otherwise ordinary, sunny, cloudless day in the late fall of 2020. Given the Stay-at-Home orders in Los Angeles County and the raging second wave of coronavirus infections sweeping across the country, it strikes a discordant note to see the large numbers gathered in the parking lot. This isn’t a protest against racial injustice or police brutality. It isn’t an angry mob fighting state-sanctioned lockdowns. And these people aren’t breaking any social distancing norms. They are in their vehicles, stacked bumper to bumper in a long procession stretching from the parking lot out to the adjacent road. They are waiting patiently. The line is possibly 100 cars long; it’s hard to tell.

It is Thanksgiving week, and the families lined up to receive food and other necessities come from the surrounding neighborhoods near El Camino College in Torrance, California. Kim and her team have prepared three hundred packages for distribution to families. By the end of the day, all will have been given out.

Students and their families in line to receive food and other supplies at the Warrior Food Pantry, El Camino College.

This is the Warrior Food Pantry, a program established through the collaborative work of student leadership groups and student service departments at El Camino in 2017. The pantry is designed to assist currently enrolled students, and their families, with food and basic necessities like shampoo, a toothbrush, and feminine products. The Thanksgiving event is exceptional, as anyone in the community is welcome, enrolled student or not.

The Warrior Food Pantry is run by Kim Cameron, our first Lumenary.

It was almost a year ago to the day that Kim took the leadership position at Warrior Food Pantry, after a modest start from the previous team. It was November 19, 2019, and Kim retells the story of finding herself jumping in to help with that year’s Thanksgiving giveaway on campus. On that day, Kim spoke to many new students about the Warrior Pantry and registered them to receive services.

Given her experience working with struggling students, Kim sensed that the program could reach many more students than what she was witnessing. She knew there were others on campus that would benefit from these services, who were either unaware or too hesitant to ask for help for the shame or embarrassment it might bring. 

Even equipped with this knowledge, however, Kim could not foresee what was around the corner.

After the rush of the holidays, news of the novel coronavirus crept into the headlines. A pandemic was coming. While the virus’s true impact would take a few more months to materialize, the early signs were not good. More and more people found themselves out of work, schools were closing, retail and restaurants were limiting capacity. We all know the story too well.

But the Warrior Food Pantry never stopped. In fact, the demand for assistance grew. Kim and her team were facing a coming storm.

“Yesterday” – The Roots of Empathy

In many ways, Kim has been here before. She isn’t a stranger to adversity. In the year 2000, Kim lost her husband, Mike, who passed away unexpectedly on Halloween. She was left caring for three boys under the age of five. An unimaginable feeling of hopelessness and despair rocked her to the core. “How will I take care of my kids? I don’t have an education,” she thought. “I was at a point where I was really lost.”

With her car repossessed from an inability to make payments, she found herself walking across town, in the snow, to get what she needed for her family. “I was living in Missouri at the time and I remember taking the kids in the stroller to the grocery store, it was really cold, and asking myself ‘How is this going to work, how are we going to survive? Are we going to make it?’”

Kim applied for and received assistance through social services. She found housing through Section 8, and was on food stamps. Accepting that she needed help was not easy, but she saw no alternative.  Without a degree, Kim felt her options were sorely limited. She had few marketable skills. “I was really lost, and the only way I could think to make it through was through education. That was my only answer.” She decided to return home to Los Angeles to live with her parents and begin her journey back.

Kim enrolled at El Camino College, now as a much older student, and sought assistance through the CalWORKS, CARE, and EOPS programs. These three support programs helped her get through the tough times and helped to build her self-confidence. The experience also brought her in touch with others facing similar challenges.

“As I spent time in social services with my kids, I began to realize that there are a lot of people like me in similar situations. I thought I was the only one in this huge problem by myself.” She realized that she was not alone. As she discovered what resources existed to assist people in need, she started to help those around her who were in a related situation. “My first job at El Camino was as a peer advisor in the EOPS program. That connection put me on my path”. She helped classmates in the computer lab and other locations on campus. She started going into classrooms when allowed to share information about available resources for students in need. .

When working with classmates who were dealing with their own traumatic experiences, Kim found herself saying, “On your journey to the future, you think you are gonna go straight up, and that’s not it at all. You might backslide and have trouble when you don’t expect it, and there are times when you go ‘I’m not going to make it,’ but then eventually you get back up and keep putting one foot in front of the other. It will not be what you anticipated or exactly what you wanted, but it’s going to be better, better than where you were, if you make that effort.”

A job opened to be a Student Services Advisor in the EOPS program, a position that today would require a bachelor’s degree, something Kim did not have. In those times, however, the qualifications weren’t as stringent, and she got hired. Kim calls this the true beginning of her mission to reach others in need. Through programs like the Summer Bridge, she frequented local high schools at Hawthorne, Lawndale, Luzinger, Inglewood, and Morningside, helping underperforming students prepare for college-level work in math and English. Along the way, she provided words of encouragement and served as a role model for others, demonstrating that it’s never too late to accomplish the goals you set for yourself and that resources exist to help you on the journey.

After budget cuts in 2009, Kim was laid off, with only a few classes left for her Associate of Arts degree. “I have to admit that I was discouraged. I sort of put things on the shelf and went back to work with my dad’s business in the food industry.” While the career change could be seen as a setback, this detour on Kim’s path led her to experience the foodservice industry, farmers markets, and the company even worked at nonprofit events hosted by organizations performing a social good.

A few years in, as her dad considered selling his business, Kim decided to return to school and complete her degree. “At that time, I was offered to come back and work part-time at ECC in outreach.” She could take classes concurrently. With the blend of work and school pushing graduation a bit farther off, this wasn’t an easy decision, and the road ahead seemed interminable. But this was a choice she felt compelled to make. “I am not going out like that. If I have to be 90 years old and walk with a cane across that graduation ceremony, I’m gonna do it.”

After these many years, graduation did finally come in 2018. Armed with her degree and the confidence that gets built over time, through the hard work, the intertwining setbacks and successes that build resilience, and the support of friends and colleagues, Kim applied for the lead position at Warrior Food Pantry in 2019.

These life experiences shaped Kim into the ideal candidate. With over twelve years working in the farmers markets and in the foodservice industry, she knew the business’s ins and outs. She had obtained her Managers Food Handlers Certificate and dealt very closely with the environmental health department. Working as a Student Services Advisor, along with a background in the outreach department, she was equipped with the skills to service this unique population. “It just really worked out to be the perfect fit for me, and I realized this is what I’m supposed to do! I’m supposed to help people who are struggling like I was because I remember what it was like. And I remember how appreciative I was when people helped me.”

“Today” – The Long Road to Success

Lumenary, Kim Cameron

The Warrior Food Pantry now serves hundreds of students and their families, twice a week, and the numbers are trending upward. On the days that families are not being served, Kim and her team purchase or pick up fresh food, make new arrangements with potential suppliers, sort out items in the inventory, and organize thoughtful care packages in bags for distribution. This work is executed by a team of two, with six others who work part-time through the Federal Work-Study program.

When asked about what she has learned regarding the needs of these students, Kim says, “We are just scratching the surface because it’s hard to know what their needs are if we haven’t gone deeply enough into learning about their situation.” For example, there’s one young lady that comes in each week who is homeless. 

“She didn’t want to say anything, but it was obvious that something was going on. All her possessions are with her in the car. I asked her if she could use a frozen chicken, and she said, ‘I can’t because I don’t have a stove.’ So I started providing her with cans, cans of tuna, cans of chicken. One day she said, ‘I can’t go to the place I normally stay, a commercial parking lot, because there are protesters there and I am afraid to take my kids there.’ I said, ‘just come to my office, bring the kids, I will print some things out that they can color, just come in and relax here for a bit.’ I called the CalWORKS Child Care director, and she was able to find a place for the family that night. Once they get familiar with you and begin to trust you, that’s when they are going to say, ‘Listen, I really need help.’ They don’t want to ask because they feel embarrassed to ask. They may feel guilty or humiliated, thinking, ‘I let this happen to myself and my family’ and not realizing that this is not always the case, sometimes bad things happen beyond your control. There’s a certain level of shame admitting that this is where I am at, and I need help.”

“Tomorrow” – Growth

Looking forward, one area Kim hopes to have more time for is making the connections with local vendors and community businesses to see where effective partnerships can form. An example of this impact is when a local bread company donated three hundred rolls for the Thanksgiving day event, and a local bakery donated a thousand pies. These partnerships work and bring so much potential benefit to the pantry and the community it serves.

Kim will sit on the newly created Basic Needs Committee, a group planning a program to provide resources for students about mental health, housing, food insecurity, and other issues. Regarding the Warrior Pantry, specifically, the team is looking to create awareness, to talk about resources in the school, and to offer advice and guidance.

The Warrior Food Pantry’s journey is just beginning. Kim’s assiduity to the work and her commitment to these struggling students give strength to the program today and will empower the movement forward. Innovative thinking and the willingness to take risks, like Kim’s idea to move the entire operation out to the parking lot, are essential for program growth and improvement. We applaud Kim and her entire team for the tireless effort and dedication to helping those in need.

“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”

– Barack Obama

After discussion with Kim, LumenSparQ will support her program through the purchase of a commercial freezer to allow her to accept additional contributions that need overnight refrigeration. It is important for us as an organization to customize our support to best meet the needs of each Lumenary or SparQ, with the intent that support directly impacts the community being served. The pantry program is in constant evolution as Kim and her team look to provide the best service possible.

If this particular story resonates with you and you choose to support the food pantry program, donations can be sent directly to the El Camino College Foundation. Be sure to select Warrior Food Pantry in the Designation dropdown menu.

To contribute to the work of future Lumenaries and SparQs, donate directly to our organization below.

Update, April 21, 2021: The freezer is in! Read the follow-up post about the Warrior Pantry and their new commercial freezer.

Author: John Umekubo • Editor: Isabel Umekubo • Photo credits: John Umekubo

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