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Meet Javier de Leon of LavaMaeX in Downtown LA

Today we’d like to introduce you to Javier de Leon.

Javier, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I am a native Angeleno, raised on the smells of Mexican cuisine and the waltzes of Griffith Park’s merry-go-round. My family instilled the values of service in me when I was a child, but they fully bloomed when I began volunteering at the St. Francis Center in DTLA.

Three years ago, LaveMaeX (then called Lava Mae, a nonprofit provider of mobile hygiene services) invited me to volunteer with them. I had a strong desire to serve, but I didn’t know what to expect. I was nervous. But after my shift, which came with meeting new friends and constant smiles, my heart was full of joy. I applied to work with LavaMaeX and was hired as a mobile service coordinator, which gave me the opportunity to deliver showers and a fresh sense of dignity to our unsheltered guests five days a week in the streets of Los Angeles. You cannot top the feeling of driving the shower trailer to a service site and being greeted by friends who care for you and allow you to care for them.

That nervous feeling I had three years ago transformed into a confident love for the work we do at LavaMaeX. As our program grew, we started hosting vital service partners: medical and dental, clothing and food, haircuts, job placement and many other services. In 2020, we evolved into LavaMaeX, a nonprofit accelerator that teaches communities all over the world how to run programs modeled after ours.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
One of the biggest challenges is tackling the misconceptions surrounding homelessness—it is never easy to see that our guests are in dire need of resources, love and acceptance. Because of my personal experiences interacting with our guests and hearing their stories, I want to encourage people to explore the complexities within our systems and institutions that cause the unhoused to be marginalized and forgotten.

I am thankful that LavaMaeX has been accepted by the community we serve and is gifted with a glimpse into a small fraction of their reality. We have been blessed with volunteers and amazing staff who are present to our guests and listen to them. It allows us to be more genuine in offering service and informs our philosophy of Radical Hospitality—meeting people, wherever they are, with an extraordinary level of care.

LavaMaeX – what should we know? What do you do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
LavaMaex is a nonprofit accelerator that’s building a worldwide network of providers who take critical services to the street, where the unhoused need them most.

We offer providers—we call them “replicators”—tools that include a free DIY toolkit and hands-on training for starting and operating a mobile hygiene service. Since 2013, we’ve trained, directly advised or inspired more than 189 programs in 160 communities in 12 countries to create mobile hygiene services based on LavaMaex–designed programs.

Our work is rooted in the philosophy of Radical Hospitality. We treat our unhoused guests as friends, know their names, look them in the eye, and offer them the same level of respect that we give each other. This restores feelings of dignity and optimism and helps fuel a sense of opportunity.

When the pandemic hit, we adapted quickly. Our guests shared that their neighborhood felt like a ghost town. They didn’t know what was happening. Many of the resources they relied on were no longer available. And when they most needed it, the critical access to hygiene was gone.

LavaMaeX developed a DIY handwashing station prototype and toolkit that allows anyone to build and deploy the stations, and we provide technical assistance to ensure the handwashing stations have an impactful life. Through our partnership with the Unilever brand The Right to Shower, we fund handwashing stations in communities throughout the country and provide soap and other supplies.

We’re on a mission to bring handwashing to every community that needs it. From the start, we have prioritized the safety of our guests and check-in with their needs, distributing COVID-19 hygiene kits in Los Angeles and the Bay Area with information and tips on how to keep safe. For the kits, we have collected donations of hand sanitizer, drinking water, food, clothes, masks, face coverings and other items from numerous organizations. We’ve delivered 5,200 hygiene kits and rising to over 25 locations, including encampments and shelters, which are distributed throughout Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland.

Talk about Radical Hospitality!

What is “success” or “successful” for you?
Success, to me, is changing the way communities see and serve our unhoused neighbors. It’s actualized when I witness collective action rooted in kindness and compassion.

I believe we all have the capacity to positively impact the lives of others. I am grateful to be a part of a team working towards improving lives, allowing me to pursue my idea of success on a daily basis.

At LavaMaeX, we measure success by the number of lives we’re able to touch. Over the next five years, we plan to fully train 75 communities to provide mobile hygiene services, collectively serve 100,000 individuals, and build a global network rooted in Radical Hospitality.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:

Headshot: Diana Rongavilla, Other photos: LavaMaeX

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