Many of us here in Los Angeles will remember 1992 in much the same way Queen Elizabeth did. With her family in shambles, part of her ancestral home in charred ruins and the public debate rising about the ultimate usefulness (or not) of the monarchy, Elizabeth II said in a rare personal pronouncement that 1992 had been an annus horribilus.
There was indeed much that was horrible about 1992 for those of us in positions less exalted than the British monarch's. Many businesses continue to flee Los Angeles (and California) for friendlier climes. Others that would like to stay are barely hanging on, hoping to wait out a recession that seems to have no end. The chasm between the haves and have-nots yawns as large as the San Andreas Fault--which, we've just been told, has a few mean cousins waiting to do us in ahead of schedule.
The most horribilus part of our annus, of course, was the anger that engulfed and, in short order, consumed this city after the Simi Valley verdicts were handed down. After the initial spate of post-riot good feeling that had well-intentioned Westsiders shoveling debris elbow-to-elbow with residents from devastated neighborhoods, things subsided to business as usual. Our distrust and fear have grown. Strained race relations in several quarters of the city are quietly simmering again, and nearly every thinking person feels overwhelmed. Those of us who would like to contribute to the real rebuilding of L.A. (the one without four chairs and 25 task forces) feel impotent: so many problems, so few resources, so little time. How can one person hope to make a difference?
I found the answer to that question recently at National Philanthropy Day, an annual ritual designed to thank donors and volunteers who have made important contributions to greater Los Angeles. Much about that breakfast, which squeezed about 1,200 philanthropic-minded citizens into the ballroom of a local hotel, was unexceptional. The philanthropic community, like the community of Los Angeles, is slowly evolving to reflect the real world (which does, after all, include women and several different ethnic groups)--although one couldn't necessarily have told that from the ballroom's demographics.
But there was one very important difference. The three young people who were honored as Youth Volunteers of the Year very much reflect what philanthropy and Los Angeles are going to become.
Florencio Orozco Jr., 15, is a shy Latino who has donated more than 5,000 hours to the Toy Loan Library in Culver City, which lends toys to poor children. (He also translates, supervises three other younger volunteers and has developed a computerized check-out system to keep track of his inventory.)
Markeisha Hill, 17, a poised African-American, counsels at the Compton Y, volunteers at the Salvation Army and several other community organizations and baby-sits daily for three foster children. Each year, she single-handedly organizes and runs a neighborhood fund-raiser that donates money to local nonprofit organizations.
Suy Khim Chhay, 18, is a tiny girl whose effervescent personality belies the personal horror she's lived through as a survivor of Pol Pot's Cambodian death camps. Since fifth grade, she has volunteered as a tutor and teacher's aide, and she is active in the L.A. chapter of Children of War, which seeks, through peer interaction, to ease the trauma of children who live in war zones
Los Angeles is not Cambodia. Yet. But the genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Somalia started with the same kind of simmering ethnic and class tensions. Florencio, Markeisha and Suy Khim are shining examples of the difference individual effort can make. And they may well be an accurate reflection of the future of giving and of their families and friends.
We would do well to take a page from their book. It doesn't always take heroic effort. Sometimes it just takes looking around, as the three young volunteers did, deciding that there are unmet needs and then rolling up our sleeves and doing something about it.
This is the time of year for giving, and what better gift could we each give the city than the promise of our best efforts, through volunteerism, financial contributions and personal outreach?
It is, I think, a comforting notion that Los Angeles can be healed by people of different races and cultures, bound by the belief that their personal intervention can make this place livable and likable again.