Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Special Delivery for The Midnight Mission: An Interview and Dramatic Retelling...

If you guys don't know by now, I studied and even taught Dramatic Literature, so here's a blog post in my truest form... The first half is not verbatim, but also not an exaggeration of what happened that day. The second half is a formal interview. Photos of the actual project can be viewed here.

(The scene is set. Lights up. Outside, it's a beautiful day. Inside, the walls are donned halls are decked with cheerful holiday decorations. Downstairs in the lobby of The Midnight Mission, an older man sits next to a table. He has set up piles of Christmas cards and a writing area. Next to him, a portly Santa sits atop the table, threatening Humpty Dumpty's cruel fate. Thankfully, he's stuffed with polyester filling instead of cookies and wouldn't suffer even if he did fall. Everyone around him moves slowly with faint smiles, full from lunch served in the kitchen just down the hallway. Joan enters, clumsily, balancing four small bags; cards with pompoms and glitter stick out of the top. She knew she should've grabbed a bigger bag. She overhears the older gentleman talking to a young man passing by. He invites him to pick out a holiday card, sit down, and write a letter to his family or people who may be missing him this holiday season. After momentary hesitation, the young man agrees and engages. The older man has barely moved this whole time. Joan approaches the Security Desk.)

JOAN: Hello, I'm wondering if Joey from Volunteer Coordinating is available? I didn't make an appointment, I'm just wondering if he's free. 

SIR: I can find out. Who are you?

JOAN: I'm Joan, from it's the little things. I have holiday cards for him.

SIR: I just saw him, but I'll call up to his office. You look familiar, have you been here before? 

JOAN: Yes, the day before Thanksgiving. I volunteered with Dirty Model in the kitchen for the sock drive. I remember you were at the desk when I checked in. What's your name?

SIR: Sydney.

JOAN: Hi Sydney, I'm Joan. (Darn, I already said that, but he smiles. Yes... first friend: made.)

SYDNEY: Hi Joan. (on the phone) Hi Joey, I have Joan from it's the little things here for you.

(Omnipresent, third person narration shares exposition on the older man in the lobby:)
She'd read about him in the paper. For thirty years, he returns to this lobby during the holidays offering the homeless community of Downtown L.A. an opportunity to correspond with the people who used to play leading roles in their lives. His family friends and grandchildren collect new holiday cards every year; later he'll mail them out, but for now, he sits while they are filled. Some even offer to pay him for his service, but he refuses. He wants people to have the same opportunity he's always had: to have a good relationship with family. The holidays are a difficult time for some people, especially around here; it's a strain on the heart and a time when addicts often see relapse. Being able to to communicate with family encourages these survivors to keep up the recovery aspect of their life. There is nothing more powerful than the human connection, and even a simple holiday card can instil hope during even the darkest of times. 

JOEY: (appearing in the lobby) Hi Joan. Wow, thanks for bringing these.

JOAN: Oh, you're welcome! We had a lot of fun with this project. About 200 are made by my second grade students, the rest are from the college students. Some you might not be able to tell who made what... but that's sort of the fun part. 

JOEY: That's great. We'll be able to get these out as soon our mail staff return from lunch.

JOAN: I was explaining to my students that the mail center really stood out to me during the tour the last time I was here; that you not only offer but encourage the community to use the Mission's address. Obviously they would need an address for job applications and social security, but until you mentioned it, I guess I never really thought about it. There's something really comforting in that.

JOEY: Absolutely. And we sort about 400 pieces of mail a day just for the community members. It's impossible to know, but I'd guess anywhere between 20-100 people come in per day to get their mail. 

JOAN: That image really stuck with me and inspired this whole project. The idea is simple, but our whole motto is that the littlest things can make a big difference. So, with these: whether they have mail waiting for them or not, they can still receive a specially handmade holiday card. For them, from us, with love.

JOEY: They're going to love these.

JOAN: I love this set up over here (referring to the outgoing holiday card writing area). It's a perfectly reciprocal project. (slight pause) I'm a history nerd and loved learning about the background of the Mission. I'll definitely be sharing it on the blog. (another pause) Hey, I've never done one for ITLT and always wanted to... you can totally say no, but do have time for an interview?

(Lights black out, and fade up a moment later upstairs. Luckily Joey and the people upstairs agreed to an impromptu interview for the website. The following excerpt is verbatim from a formal interview recorded in the second floor lobby of the Midnight Mission. Set requires a couch or chairs. Joan fiddles with her phone, struggling to download a reliable recording application. Finally, she succeeds.)

ITLT: We have Joey here from The Midnight Mission. Joey, how did you get involved and what role do you play here at the Mission?

JOEY: I'm the assistant volunteer coordinator here at The Midnight Mission (TMM). I actually live at TMM at the Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation program, a counseling and twelve step program for gentlemen here trying to get their lives back on track. I came in here just like another other guy looking to get his life back on track, hit the ground running, and had the opportunity to work for the Public Affairs Office. My job is to make sure that we get volunteers in here to help with our meal service. We serve the community three meals a day, Monday through Saturday, and on Sunday we do breakfast and dinner.

ITLT: That's a lot of meals! Are you able to fill each meal with volunteers?

JOEY: Not all the time. Right now, during the holiday season, we definitely have a pretty full schedule. But throughout the year, there are occasions when we're not able to fill certain spots; especially breakfast services early in the morning, that's definitely one harder to fill. When we're not able to fill our service with volunteers, we have the program upstairs - we have 250 guys in our program - so we'll go up to our dorm and make an announcement that we can use some extra help in our kitchen.

ITLT: So, it's really a community just in itself.

JOEY: Pretty much, yeah. 

ITLT: That's really nice.

JOEY: Definitely.

ITLT: So, how did TMM come to be?

JOEY: We've been around for 100 years now, since 1914. Let me just tell you, today Skid Row consists of what we consider to be about 50 square blocks of people suffering from homelessness or near homelessness that live on the streets in the area. A hundred years ago, it wasn't like that. It was just two main streets, Los Angeles and Main Street. Our founder, a gentleman named Tom Liddecoat, owned a packing company; a warehouse that was on 4th and Los Angeles. At the end of his business day every day, he would get in his horse and buggy with his daughter, Mary, and they would cruise up and down Skid Row and invite people to go back to the warehouse with them. Once they got back to the warehouse, Tom Liddlecoat was a lay minister by faith so he would sermonize. If you stuck around and listened to his preaching throughout the night, you were offered a place to stay and then a meal at midnight, and that's why the community dubbed us The Midnight Mission. He did that for about eight years and then his partner, a guy named Henry Richman, took over. Henry Richmond ran the Mission for a little over 50 years. During that time, a gentleman named Clancy Imislund came to TMM looking for a place to crash. Up until the early 70s, TMM pretty much was a homeless shelter and a religious organization. So Clancy came in drunk off the streets, causing problems and getting in fights, and they ended up kicking him out. Just like any self-respecting alcoholic, he shook his fist and said that he was "going to come back and run this place one day!" He'll show everyone... So he was out on the streets here in Downtown LA taking advantage of whatever resources he could and decided to get his life back on track through Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12-step program behind that. And he did, slowly but surely; he became a productive member of society again, and eventually a well respected man in his community. In the early 70s, he came back to TMM, the place that had kicked him out so many years earlier, to give back. Because, that's what it's all about, right? Giving back. We call it "a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition." I know that might sound like a mouthful... but what it really comes down to is: when you do good, you feel good, and when you feel good, you want to give it back.

ITLT: That's how we operate too.

JOEY: Exactly. So that's what happened with Clancy, he wanted to be able to give back. And by 1974, he did exactly what he said he was going to do and ended up becoming our third president. With him, he brought the twelve steps of AA, but turning it from a religious based organization to a more non-denominational organization, opening it's doors to a lot more people. So Clancy ran the Mission 'til about 1998 and then our current president, Larry Adamson, took over and has been running it ever since. So four presidents in a hundred years, not bad right?

ITLT: Not bad at all! So earlier you mentioned that volunteers can come assist in the kitchen. How else can people donate?

JOEY: If people wanted to help in any other capacity, we aren't limited to just meal services. We have a full education department with paid staff that offer GED classes to gentlemen who want to focus on their education while they're here. A lot of our tutors are student volunteers that come and donate their time. We actually have a couple professors too from UCLA and USC that volunteer here to tutor when they're available. We also have barbers in our barbershop down in our day room that volunteer to come and cut hair. A couple of them are alumni who graduated from the program and come back because they want to give back to TMM what was so freely given to them and they're able to do that on a regular basis. We cut the program participants hair on certain days, but we also have certain days for the guests from the community to come get free haircuts as well. That's a big part of our program: a meal, a haircut, a shower--

ITLT: Essential resources.

JOEY: Exactly.

ITLT: Now, it's the little things started out as an online resource blog, but we've done our best to reach out and be present in our community. Originally, I started ITLT because I found that a lot of young people don't have a ton of time to volunteer or a lot of money to donate yet to causes they care about. I found myself wanting to volunteer at all these amazing organizations, but I have three jobs, and I don't make enough money to make a significant impact for every cause. This is a way for people to participate in creative acts of kindness from home; a DIY project-based blog that suggests projects that can still make a difference to someone in need. 

JOEY: That's a very cool way to - in some shape or form - give back to the community. You know, do stuff on your own time and then deliver it. Like you did with these Christmas cards, which is amazing! I definitely think that it's an awesome idea and I know that the powers that be would agree with me.

ITLT: Thank you! Now, if a volunteer were to contact you and say, "I can't volunteer, but I'd like to help in some other way." Is there anything they are able to do from afar, in some other form?

JOEY: Yeah, kind of. We ask groups to put together their own drive, like for example a hygiene kit. Hotel-size soaps, shampoo bottles, a toothbrush and toothpaste, in order to put a whole hygiene kit in a little bag. You can host it through social media, at school, different religious groups. Or another I'd like to mention is a sock drive--

ITLT: We just had a sock drive!

JOEY: Cool! Here at TMM, we're looking at about 1,000 pairs of socks. On a daily basis, we see anywhere between 400-600 people come through here. If a group wanted to host their own giveaway here, and only had 700 pairs... what if we had 705 people come through? So we like to have a little extra, and if there's leftovers then we always have more for next time. It gives us an opportunity to set up another event. 

ITLT: That Christmas card man in the lobby (mentioned earlier) is wonderful. Writing cards is such an amazing rebuilding tool for these guys who can't be with family during the holidays. It's so simple but so essential.

JOEY: It really is, it's a beautiful thing. Exactly the same idea with bringing your students' Christmas cards. Just a simple idea -- when one of our guests from the community comes in to get their mail from our mail center, which happens on a daily basis, that our mail staff will be able to hand them a card from the stack you brought for us. "Hey, what do you know-- a Christmas card." Maybe they haven't gotten one in a long time. You know, a lot of people are stuck in the rut of the holidays, because maybe they don't have their family, or they're not corresponding with their family, if they even have any family. So being able to receive something that says, "Merry Christmas," "Happy Hanukkah," or "Merry Kwanza," -- whatever the case may be -- something as simple as that, just to show that there are good people out there. Now these are obviously not addressed to particular people and don't show a personal relationship to the person receiving the card, but help that person develop a little bit of hope and realization that there is good in the world. It's an amazing thing that you guys are doing, for sure. 

ITLT: Thank you so much. So if people see this blog post and are interested in making cards for TMM, holiday related or not, are they able to mail them to the Mission? 

JOEY: It would be possible, but the people in the mail already sort through so much mail, so dropping off a stack of cards like you did would make it so much easier for them to pull from the stack and deliver the card. We don't want to add more work, so the best way to do it would be to drop off. 

ITLT: We can definitely encourage this project for future holidays! 

JOEY: That would be great! If anyone would like to learn a little more, we invite everyone to come in to TMM and take a tour. If they'd like to be part of our meal service, the best way to do that is to email us at and that goes to me! To check out our events on a regular basis, you can like us on facebook, or follow us on twitter and instagram @midnitemission.

Check out photos from the project here!