Today we’d like to introduce you to DeAndra Jones.
So, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I was four years old when my family and I experienced our first and only true episode of homelessness. We relocated from Hattiesburg, Mississippi after moving back and forth for a few years. My young parents at the time were deciding if they would stay in their home town or leave what they knew behind and start fresh in California. We had family who had already made the move and informed my parents of the increase in education and employment opportunities. After years of experiencing life as Black individuals and now a Black family in Mississippi, my parents decided they wanted a different experience for their children and decided to move to California to stay- my younger brother was only seven months at the time.
We packed up, moved to Cali and stayed with my maternal aunt while my parents secured jobs and searched for housing. This plan proved to work well until we abruptly had to leave my aunt’s apartment as two families exceeded the number of occupants the building owner allowed in one unit. Being new residents to California, we had nowhere else to turn except a shelter. FESCO (Family Emergency Shelter Coalition) in Hayward, CA was the only shelter in the East Bay Area at the time that allowed families to stay together-meaning most shelters at the time prioritized women and children only. While my father was willing to do whatever was necessary to ensure his wife and kids were safe and cared for first, FESCO informed my parents that they would take us all in as a family unit. To this day, my parents are incredibly thankful for this as our experiences may have looked very different if my parents were required to separate.
Our shelter experience was not a traditional shelter experience that one might expect. My older sister is still able to recall the high level of care and consideration we received from FESCO staff. What stood out most is FESCO tried their best to create an environment that was as close to normal as possible for us. We were not treated like “homeless people.” We lived in a large home with other families, who were normal folks like us and too, needed help. FESCO provided shelter, but also food, school supplies, clothing, and most importantly education to my parents on how to avoid homelessness in the future through financial literacy. We were given the supports and resources we needed to secure stable housing but also coached on the responsibilities needed to maintain. FESCO followed us years after into my high school years, to ensure we had school supplies every school year, food every holiday and did not experience an additional episode of homelessness. Because of the care and commitment we experienced from FESCO, I thirsted for a career path that reflected humility and valued the service and advocacy of vulnerable populations…populations that I saw myself in once before.
When I was accepted to UC Berkeley as a high school senior, I immediately thought I wanted to study Psychology and become a psychotherapist as a means of helping people in the community. However, I quickly learned that social work was what really answered my questions about social services, community supports, and policy development on behalf of disadvantaged folks. Social work answered my questions about advocacy avenues/platforms and mental health supports and initiatives for the low income. Social Work was the field in which I realized I would be able to fully commit to providing the level of service and care my family and I received.
My social work journey began the summer of my Freshman year at Cal when I interned for an Independent Living Skills program in San Francisco and fell in love with servicing Foster Youth. I graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Social Welfare and a minor in African American studies in 2010 and immediately went on to gain my Masters in Social Work from the University of Southern California with a concentration in Public Child Welfare. After working as a social worker for a government entity post-graduation and then as a therapist providing community mental health supports after that, I was not happy with how I was doing social work on behalf of these organizations. The approaches and intervention styles did not reflect my personal values and ethics. I was certain I could be of service more to those in need in a different setting that encouraged creative interventions and tailored support. In 2015, I was fortunate enough to return to my niche of supporting transition age foster youth at a public child welfare agency in Los Angeles. I saw that I was making a clearer impact as an individual and as part of a larger team and agency with a mission that resonated with me. I felt fulfilled… but only temporarily.
With a job that I enjoyed, was proud of, and at an agency that was forward-thinking and innovative, one might think that was enough, right? Well it wasn’t, at least not for me. While I am still extremely proud to continue to work at my agency and support with improving services for transition-aged youth across the country, in 2016 the feelings I struggled with for years came to a head. For years I felt my 9-5, though in the service field, wasn’t enough to address the issues I would see in my own communities on a daily basis. In particular, living in Pico-Union and Mid-City, Los Angeles areas for most of my time since moving from the Bay Area, homelessness and food insecurity was in my face all the time. While some can ignore it as part of the landscape, I simply couldn’t. To this day, I can recall the fear my family experienced when we had no place of our own to call home as well as the many times where food was scarce or just simply not available. In July of 2016, after discussion with family and friends and their ongoing cheer-leading, I launched Mid-City Meals as an intentional grassroots, volunteer and donation-based effort to simply do more for those I saw in need in the Los Angeles and Bay Area communities.
Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
My personal journey to where I am today has been far from smooth or easy. From experiencing homelessness and poverty as a child to being a first-generation college student and the first in my family to pursue and obtain a Master’s degree, things were challenging and often scary to navigate. Though I fortunately grew up in a 2-parent household, there were many things I was unable to turn to my parents to for support simply because they didn’t have the experience, not because they refused to help. Starting a community-based initiative to address food insecurity was one of those things.
Launching Mid-City Meals was hard, and it’s still not necessarily easy to maintain, but I believe it is always necessary and worth it. My goals and aspirations for helping others have always been big, and my delay in launching Mid-City Meals was largely because I wanted to help as many people as possible and didn’t have the money and resources to do it. Also, what if I failed? After working my ass off in school to enter a career I was proud of, the fear of failure was real! Fear of disappointing others, especially those in need was real. It took several conversations with close friends and loved ones to shake me out of that fear and realize that there was no room for failure in my intent to help those less fortunate.
After moving past the fear to start, I worried about how I would maintain. Running a volunteer-based effort means being the only volunteer if there aren’t others. It means covering the remaining costs if donations aren’t sufficient. It also means continuing to be excited about the work when others might not be and continuing to carry the charge with or without the support of others. And I was willingly agreeing to all of the above if I were to start Mid-City Meals. Understanding this responsibility and commitment I was making to the cause and more importantly, to the community was big for me. Fortunately, I agreed to do it and am truly happy I did. Thankfully, today team Mid-City Meals continues to grow every effort, partnership and initiative and I have tons of gratitude for my day 1 “MCMers” as well as our new supporters and partners. However, the initial fear of “can I do this on my own?” in addition to my job at work, being a family member, friend, partner and supporter of other initiatives alike was slightly paralyzing. Friends and family, prayer, meditation and encouragement is what helped me move through my anxiety and focus on the fact that the need was there and my intentions were good, and that matters most.
Even after our initial launch and several successful efforts under our belt, the journey continues to have its challenges. However, I’ve learned so much over the past few years and continue to be a student at navigating MCM’s pacing with growth and impact. One of my biggest learning lessons is that there is no right or wrong way to help people. There is no baseline amount of assistance that one can provide that is “good enough”. People need help every day and if we overthink how much we can help and whether our help will be sufficient, that is precious time wasted.
Please tell us about Mid-City Meals.
Mid-City Meals works to create awareness around food insecurity and homelessness by creating opportunities for people to give to those in need, normalizing and simplifying the process of giving back and helping others along the way. We are a volunteer-driven and donation-based organization that thrives from contributions from the community, for the community, with the support of community member volunteers and donors. Our Los Angeles and Bay Area efforts include food and hygiene kit distributions in Mid-City, Skid Row and Downtown Oakland, stockpile donation drives on behalf of unstably housed residents in transitional housing and shelter facilities, and holiday family sponsorship programs to name a few. While initially known for our community food distributions, MCM has evolved its efforts to include partnerships with existing organizations doing the work. Some of our previous partnerships include Bay Area After School All-Stars, Jusdeep’s Village, Zone 26 LA, The Culture Junkies, and Family Emergency Shelter Coalition (FESCO). Our goal is to, in addition to our own individual efforts, also collaborate with folks who are also doing the work to reach more of those in need and work towards having a greater impact. Our goal is to feed the community, educate the community and illustrate through our efforts how simple it can be for others to do individually or within their own communities. MCM strives to inspire others to have a deeper understanding of the need to give back, and to realize that it is not always so tasking if we do it together, are intentional and have the recipients in mind throughout the process.
We all have lives, families, jobs and priorities and MCM understands this. We intentionally position our efforts to keep the daily lives of others in mind, to eliminate barriers and challenges that might get in the way of folks wanting to be apart of our opportunities to help. Additionally, we do not only cater to the chronically homeless. We work to incorporate varied efforts that include the chronically homeless, but also the invisible homeless population that many forget about or don’t recognize as homeless because they may not fit the stereotype. Our goal to feed the homeless and low-income people is intentional, particularly because of my own lived experiences. We recognize that a person does not have to “look homeless” to be hungry or not have regular access to food and water. We believe this approach, servicing all individuals and families that self-identify as in need, without lofty criteria that might prevent some from getting the support they need, makes us unique.
MCM is most proud of celebrating three years of service in July of 2019. We celebrated this milestone with the launch of our Instagram page after folks reminded us that our website and email list simply wasn’t enough. Additionally, we are always incredibly proud to just be able to continue to do this work as our own individuals lives happen simultaneously. I say “we” because I receive huge support and assistance from my younger brother, Cedric who handles all things marketing and social media and Kimberly, my older sister who supports with identifying partners that align with our work and thinking about next steps. Between the support of my family, close friends and of course all of our volunteers and donors across the state, I, alone, can’t take credit for the incredible work over the past few years. It has truly been a team effort.
Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
Mid-City Meals is very much so a team effort. From the hands-on support with coordination I receive from my siblings to my parents working to be as involved as they can be, to my close friends and family members who beat the pavement during food distributions or send donations during drives, this literally could not be done and sustained without them!
My late uncle Thomas Adams is someone who as a young girl and adult, he messaged and modeled the importance of understanding no matter how much or how little you have, there is someone who has less and it is our responsibility as humans to help those people. I give him credit for inspiring me to keep going when the going gets tough.
- $5 donation provides a meal for 1. Visit our PayPal link on our website if interested in giving.
- $25 donation provides a meal for a group of 4-5. Visit our PayPal link on our website if interested in giving.
- $50 donation provides a meal for a group of 8-10. Visit our PayPal link on our website if interested in giving.
- Website: www.midcitymeals.com
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: @MidCityMeals