I was finally a contender as a writer. In 2013, my book, Foothold In The Mountain, about my life and career in Hollywood and on television, was launched to good reviews. You could say it took me a while. I was already in my 80’s.
Given my age, I was surprised to be asked at a book signing, “What is your next project?” So jazzed about the success of my book, I blurted out, “I want to pay it forward.”
And that’s exactly what I’ve done. After learning about it in the local newspaper, I became a daily volunteer at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, an amazing organization that transforms former gang members into high-functioning citizens. It’s known as one of the most successful rehabilitation programs in the U.S.
I have no specific title at Homeboy, sometimes called “MaMa” and sometimes affectionately known as “PITA”, as in Pain In The You-Know-What. I do fundraising, but I also do a lot of hugging and some scolding. I listen, support, respect, appreciate and love all my “homies” deeply, encouraging them to move forward and suggesting options.
Homeboy Industries offers an “exit ramp” for those stuck in a cycle of violence and incarceration. With free services and programs, it supports 10,000 men and women a year as they work to overcome their pasts, reimagine their futures, and break the intergenerational cycle of gang violence.
Therapeutic and educational offerings (case management, counseling, and classes), practical services (e.g., tattoo removal, work readiness, and legal assistance), and job training-focused business (e.g., Homeboy Bakery, Homegirl Café, and Homeboy Silkscreen & Embroidery) provide healing alternatives to gang life, while creating more inclusive and healthier communities.
Why Homeboy as my encore? I understand the nobility of enduring and transcending pain. I rose from the ashes of my childhood, experienced debilitating depression and emotional trauma—the whole nine yards. I believe I have a worthwhile message to pass on and Homeboy Industries is receptive to what I have to offer.
I am available to do whatever I am capable of, whenever I am called upon. I was Team Captain of the organization’s fundraiser – a 5K Run/Walk – rounding up participants at $40 a head and soliciting celebrities to help out. I also pitch in on clothing drives, rehabilitation meetings and employment opportunities.
I take pride in success stories like that of Abraham Trejo. Most of Abraham’s life has been spent in juvenile homes, prisons and on parole. When he enrolled at Homeboy in 2014, his counselors found out how smart he was!
With Homeboy’s help, he turned his life around, enrolling in community college and even taking part in a study-abroad program in Oxford, England, with room and board provided by our fundraising. He hopes one day to become a lawyer and is a bright, well-mannered, and humble young man.
As for me, at 86 and with full faculties intact, I am happy to report that it’s never over until it’s over. Life’s experience is the greatest teacher. The pain of learning is a gift we grow from. The joy of service is the biggest surprise. As the saying goes, “It is never too late to become who you might have been.”