A discreetly funded program is almost tapped out—like the people it helps
Yazmin Adams never thought homelessness was something she’d have to worry about. But there she was, at just 18, pushed from the only home she’d ever known. And scared to death.
Her family struggled after her mother lost a battle with lupus. Alone, her dad’s paychecks barely covered rent on their small apartment in the Adams district of Los Angeles. A steep rent hike and an eviction followed. A relative took in her dad and little brother, but Adams spent evenings sleeping on the couches, and sometimes floors, of friends until the welcomes wore out. “I was embarrassed, you know?” she recalls. “And I was scared to ask anyone for help.” Then came her saving grace—a $2,000 check, enough to cover two months’ rent on a new apartment in Riverside, where the living was cheaper, and to buy a bed, linens, a few dishes and a shower curtain.
Her benefactor? Two complete strangers. “I couldn’t believe it,” Adams says of her gift. “They didn’t even know me, and yet they did so much for me.”
And that’s the point of the Pass It Along program, launched eight years ago by two wealthy businessmen who, motivated by nothing more than a gratefulness at their own success in life, wanted to give back by helping people teetering on the brink. The two donors put their money where their hearts were and gave $870,000 to the California Community Foundation, leaving it to the organization to find people most in need.
CCF, which was founded by L.A. civic icon Joseph Sartori in 1915, specializes in administering funds for a full range of charities supporting educational opportunities, health-care needs, neighborhood revitalization projects and artistic development. Last year, the CCF, led by president and CEO Antonia Hernández (who ran MALDEF—the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund—for 25 years), granted charities $228.4 million, largely collected from wealthy individuals and companies. But rarely are those funds available directly to individuals in crisis. In other words, checks had always gone to the homeless shelters, not to the person about to become homeless.
Until Pass It Along came about.
Mindful of that gap in the charitable community, the donors directed CCF to set up a system for doling out money straight to a person in dire straits. The grant winner must, however, be referred to CCF through one of hundreds of charities the foundation has worked with through the years.
Unlike most donors, the Pass It Along benefactors wanted their names left off all public paperwork—no awards, no accolades, no words of thanks. They didn’t even try to explain what moved them to such generosity. Nearly a decade later, they have chosen to remain anonymous.
By any name, the concept hits home. “Some believe the highest form of giving is someone who gives anonymously, who doesn’t want to be thanked or who gives with no strings,” says Amy Fackelmann, senior philanthropic adviser for CCF.
Adams herself still wonders about all the mystery. “I’m so curious to know why they didn’t want to be known. I’m sure they have their reasons, and I respect that. But I wish I could meet them and just say, ‘Thank you for everything.’ ”
The Pass It Along grants aren’t exactly without strings. In fact, each award winner has to agree to pay back the generosity. But not with cash. Just with kindness. “These are people who are barely hanging on in life,” says Gregory Shepard, CCF’s donor fund operations specialist. “We know that. So we don’t ask for the money back. We ask the recipient to return the favor by doing something nice for someone else—cook for an elderly neighbor, go grocery shopping for someone housebound, befriend someone lonely. Just pay it forward.”
Adams, who was nominated through the California Conservation Corps, a job-training program, even had to sign a certificate when she received her check, promising to live up to her end of the bargain. And she did, waking up at 5 every morning to commute from Riverside to Los Angeles for job training at the corps, then donating the last two hours of her workdays to a preschool. She enjoyed the volunteer work so much that on weekends she began tutoring at the elementary school her little brother attends.
All that was just over a year ago. Today, Adams still volunteers at her brother’s school; that experience landed her a paying job at a preschool, and on the side, she attends Los Angeles Trade Tech College, where she is working toward her AA in child development. “I had no problem giving back, because someone gave to me,” she says, tearing up at the thought of where she would have been if that small financial gift hadn’t been there to pull her through.
A clinical social worker at the Venice Family Clinic, the largest free clinic in the United States, Steve Artiga has referred several of his clients to the program and seen firsthand how Pass It Along can change a life: “So frequently, people don’t need major government help. They just need this boost in life, something to keep them from going under. Their needs may be so small, but the payoff is so big.”
William Linartes, a onetime hardened gang member, still gets emotional when he recalls the day Artiga told him he was an award recipient. Linartes, 29, received funds to buy a computer and a printer—tools he needed so he could quit gang life for good and return to school. He was tired of a life spent in and out of jail—and, before that, juvenile hall—on an assortment of robbery, assault and counterfeiting convictions.
On top of that, at age six, Linartes learned he suffered from neurofibromatosis, more crudely known as Elephant Man disease, a nod to the story about a tragically disfigured man afflicted with an illness that causes tumors to develop throughout the body. Linartes is one of the lucky ones: Of the hundreds of tumors that have developed in his body since childhood, just one—in his pelvis—has been cancerous. That was nine years ago. He’s cancer free today, which is a dual triumph. It means he has already lived a year longer than his mother, who died at 28 of the same disease.
After beating the cancer, Linartes vowed he’d do more with the life he almost lost. He faltered a few times in the beginning, once landing back in jail. But eventually, his social worker convinced him to go back to school and apply for the $1,500 Pass It Along grant that covered the cost of his computer equipment. “I just realized someone made an investment in me even I wasn’t willing to make,” he says. “That never happened before. But because they did, I won’t let them down. Nothing can hold me back now.” Today, Linartes carries a 3.5 GPA at Santa Monica Community College. In his free time, he volunteers as a delivery driver for Meals on Wheels.
Such dramatic life turnarounds do sound a little too good to be true. There are plenty who renege on their promise to pay it forward. After all, the entire program runs on nothing more than the honor system. But remarkably, most do not shirk their responsibility. And that, according to CCF officials, goes to show what a little tender loving care can do when extended to those not used to receiving such random acts of kindness.
Today, after eight years and 392 grants totaling $844,000, the program that has meant so much to so many may be on the verge of disappearing for good. With less than $30,000 left in the Pass It Along account, administrators of the program expected it to run out by early 2009. Then in January of this year, the original donor contributed another $100,000 to keep the fund going. The second donor has moved on, now working in other charitable capacities. They are aware of all the lives they’ve helped turn around and are hopeful others will pick up the baton and contribute funds to keep the concept going. Even with the influx of new money, the fund is still in jeopardy of extinction.
For now, all CCF administrators can do is cling to that same kind of faith, hoping a new donor will step in as soon as possible to breathe new life into a program that has inspired so much goodness. “We need someone with a philanthropic heart,” Shepard says. “Someone who can see we are helping not only the neediest of the needy but people who really want to help themselves. Then once they are stable, they turn around and help someone else. And that’s pretty special.”
To contribute, contact the Pass It Along Fund, c/o California Community Foundation, 445 S. Figueroa St., Ste. 3400, Los Angeles, CA 90071; 213-413-4130.
TINA DIRMANN has written for, among others, Us Weekly, Cosmopolitan and E! Online on everything from Hollywood to homicide. She is the author of two books on local murder cases.