In a cramped room behind a Vermont Avenue church, a dozen people bagged supplies Friday for the Brotherhood Crusade's food distribution effort in South Los Angeles.
"We've had every nationality in here. It's been like this every day," said crew coordinator Beverly Wilson as she surveyed the all-volunteer group of whites, Latinos, blacks and Asian-Americans working side by side.
The group included a nurse from Inglewood, a screenwriter from West Hollywood, a housewife from Los Angeles, and Wilson, a grandmother from up the street. This was the first time any of them had met.
Spurred to action by the riots' devastation, they joined untold numbers around the city in the last nine days who volunteered to clean up, pass out food or answer telephones.
Some volunteers, such as the hardy corps at the American Red Cross shelter at Dorsey High School, have been involved in similar efforts for years. Others are newcomers, such as the group at the Crusade's distribution center on West 53rd Street.
"This is the first time I volunteered for anything before," said Diamond Yoakum, 27, a black housewife who lives near USC. A former jet engine mechanic who has not worked since she was found to have cancer four years ago, Yoakum volunteered after seeing lines of needy people outside the distribution center last weekend that stretched around the block.
She figured the Crusade needed help. "I'm trying to focus on somebody else besides me," she said. Although she has lived in the area for many years, until now she felt apart from the impoverished community that surrounded her. "The environment is so depressing you get to the point you just don't care," she said. "It's a shame it took a riot to open my eyes."
As Yoakum put soup, pasta, evaporated milk and other items in plastic bags, Brooke Wilson, a 31-year-old screenwriter from West Hollywood, disclosed why she was there. "It sounds really cliche," she said, "but I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem."
Beverly Wilson said she and other locals pitched in when the Crusade set up the emergency food distribution program at the African-American Community Unity Center last Saturday. She has been there six hours a day ever since.
"It's a shame something like this had to happen to get all of us to work together," she said of the riots. "We could have been doing this all of the time."
At the Red Cross shelter at Dorsey High School, Ken Obayashi and Gail Farnsworth were old hands at providing disaster services. For Obayashi, a former electronics engineer who just graduated from nursing school, this was another in a long list of efforts over the last eight years. The 49-year-old had staffed Red Cross stations during "lots of brush fires, chemical spills, snowstorms," he said.
Now he was managing the Dorsey shelter, which by Friday morning was housing 112 homeless riot victims--about half of them members of Latino families. The numbers had dropped from a high of 177 who were sheltered Sunday night.
When the riots started, Obayashi was in Hawaii, vacationing and visiting his father, who had undergone surgery. But by Friday, the Santa Clarita resident was dressed in his red-white-and-blue Red Cross uniform and working in Los Angeles.
Farnsworth, 49, had been on duty since before dawn Thursday, when the Red Cross called her at her Glendale home.
For her, this disaster was more emotionally disturbing than others she had seen. When she saw the sky exploding in fire, heard gunshots not far from her first post, and treated injuries such as knife wounds inflicted on a 5-year-old boy, she said, "I had a feeling of frustration that this had to happen at all, because violence only breeds violence."
A laid-off executive secretary who said her future holds "a lot of job hunting, like anybody else," Farnsworth had been volunteering 12- to 14-hour days, despite an injured foot that caused a medical disability.
"Take a look around you," she said, gesturing at the Dorsey gymnasium, which was filled with cots. Many held parents with small children. "These are innocent people that happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Here we're dealing with people that have lost everything."
She treasures the people she has met there, she said. "People, when they first come in, are very closed within themselves. But then they get to know you and there's a real bond that forms."
This has happened even though she cannot speak more than a few words of Spanish to the Latino victims at the shelter. "A smile, a twinkle in the eye, a hug, showing you care goes a long way."