Los Angeles Times

Biking banditos bestowing burritos

It all started during a church service.

Anthony Singhavong, a fourth-year student at UC Irvine, was attending NewSong Community Church in the spring of 2009 when Pastor Tony Kim spoke about the importance of serving the community.

"They're just really big on inspiring the younger generation," Singhavong said about his church.

Kim mentioned the Burrito Project, a nationwide relief effort involving groups making burritos for the homeless. The project won the first MySpace Impact Award in 2006 and there are now Burrito Projects all over the United States, from Los Angeles to Detroit. The church was going to start one in northern Orange County.

Singhavong knew he wanted to be part of the project, but he had a different plan.

"We had this vision of [the Burrito Project] being run by college students," Singhavong said.

He also didn't want to be associated with the church.

"Anyone could come of any religious affiliation," he said. "Obviously we have our own beliefs and stuff, but the idea of helping another person is a worldwide, common trait."

A week later, the Burrito Banditos of Irvine were born.

Singhavong and his roommates — Andrew Yang, Steven Wang, Mike Fukuda and Josh Yu — decided they would help out the homeless of Santa Ana because, although the city was close to Irvine, it provided a stark contrast to the university town.

"The reason we chose Santa Ana is … when you cross the 405 Freeway, about 10 minutes in, you're like 'What is this place?'" he said. "It's not like Irvine all around the world."

Because they're students, Singhavong and his roommates had to find a way to make a burrito within their limited budgets. Plus, they were working off donations from other students because they did not want to be affiliated with a religious institution.

"We came up with something that was easy to make and affordable, because we're college students," said Yu, the Banditos' burrito chef. "These are just rice and bean burritos. If they wanted to, they could probably keep it for a couple days before it goes bad."

Each ride of distributing the food costs $60 to $70 and produces about 150 burritos. It includes a water bottle and covers the necessary supplies (such as bags and tinfoil) to create the burritos. Sometimes, when donations come in, they're able to add a granola bar or a pair of socks.

Although many people show support for the group — including campus religious groups and SHOUT, a UCI organization dedicated to homeless outreach — the group is close-knit, with about 20 people total running the show. Half make the burritos on Saturdays and then on Sunday; the other half rides around Santa Ana on bikes, delivering them to the homeless.

Their main stop is the Civic Center in downtown Santa Ana. They caravan over, with bikes strapped on the back of a car. Then they cruise around, looking for familiar faces and new ones, too. Much like an anthropologist earning trust in a tribe, it hasn't been easy for the students to develop relationships with the homeless there. Many were confused by the homemade meal, especially when they said there were no strings attached.

"They'd be questioning us when we were out there," Singhavong said. "They'd always be like, 'Are you guys part of a church?' (I said) we're just a few friends that wanted to come out and talk to you guys. They're like 'Oh, you don't want us to go to a church or anything?'"

They don't talk about the project or their personal religious beliefs with the people they serve.

"I think you can determine someone's faith more so by their actions than by what they say," he said.

Their hipster style and colorful bikes make them hard to miss two Sundays a month. Over time, Singhavong said, they feel accepted in the community. Instead of hesitant, many homeless people are excited to see the roommates and their crew.

"I have a few numbers and e-mails. We've formed personal relationships with them," he said. "They know us by name."

The people who live on the streets are like a family, Singhavong said, and he was surprised by their loyalty to each other.

"They have their own community and look out for each other," he said. "If they had already eaten, they're like 'I don't need this, but this person needs it … so let me take it to them.' They'll literally take it to them. It's pretty cool."

Although the homeless have been very thankful for the Burrito Banditos' contributions, the students have also gained perspective from the experience, which marked it's one-year anniversary this spring.

Yang, a sociology student at UCI, admitted that he didn't have the best view of the homeless before he became involved.

"I think, going into it, I had this mentality that homeless people were homeless for a reason," he said.

He learned that just like any group of people, each person has an individual story, some plagued by poverty and addiction and others not at all.

"The people out there are really normal. Some are very brilliant, very smart," Yang said. "It makes you wonder, 'How do these people end up out here?'"

Singhavong agreed.

"It helped me to not snap judgment on someone just because of raggedy clothes," he said. "They can have the best character, but just have a series of unfortunate events happen to them."

Unlike the stereotype, Singhavong said he's never been asked for money or been taken advantage of. The most they'll ask for is a little help to get back up on their feet.

"Sometimes they ask us, 'Can you get us a bus token or tickets?' so they can go to job interviews," he said. "I've never had anyone ask me for money while I was out there."

The project has also made the college seniors reflect on their futures after graduation. Yu, who has turned burrito preparation into an exact science, sees this as a possible career.

"If I do pursue culinary school, I was thinking of going nonprofit with it … maybe opening up a soup kitchen or working with people like that," Yu said.

In the beginning, the burrito chef said they were just emptying their pockets every two weeks to make the vegetarian burritos. Now, due to some campus press attention and their story on UCI's website, the Burrito Banditos are working with a $400 budget, which can sustain them for the rest of the year. They're hoping to provide a little extra in the coming months, especially because the weather is getting colder.

"I know a few of them need first aid kits," Yu said. "We're looking into getting some of those things for them."

For more information about the Burrito Banditos at UC Irvine, visit their Facebook or follow them on Twitter @BurritoBanditos. Donations can be made by contacting them via their Facebook page.

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