Column: Want to help those in need but not sure how to begin? Here’s an idea: Start small

A man places a clothing donations in a red bin.
Rick Stoff, a co-founder of Volunteer Collective, places a donation in a bin at the Men’s Warehouse on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica on Dec. 7.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

For years, longtime friends Rick Stoff and Richard Foos had been knocking around an idea for a different way to approach charity, one that might get their friends to do more than just write checks and wring their hands.

Both were steeped in the world of giving. Foos, a co-founder of Rhino Records, is a philanthropist and reliable supporter of progressive causes. And Stoff, who retired three years ago, spent 14 years as a salesman for the social services agency Chrysalis, which helps people prepare for, find and keep jobs. His role was to persuade businesses to hire the agency’s struggling clients. Stoff had sold many things over the course of his career, but matching employers with entry-level workers, he said, was the only time he really loved his work.

To be sure, in this town, there is no shortage of opportunities to pitch in. There’s Big Sunday, which started as an annual event that drew people out of their homes for one day of community work but has now become a year-round effort. And L.A. Works, founded in 1991, offers myriad opportunities to do things like distribute food, provide companionship to a lonely senior, tutor a child, write a grant.


For some people, though, the array of choices on websites like those can be daunting. Stoff and Foos thought they could motivate people by proposing one task, to be accomplished by the end of the week.

You have a week to go into your closet and find two pairs of shoes to donate.

You have a week to write a letter to the Coastal Commission in support of a low-income housing project in Venice.

Please commit to driving one day for Meals on Wheels.

Please come to Chrysalis for two hours to help job seekers prepare for interviews.

Two years ago, the pair founded Volunteer Collective to help folks who are struggling, awaken a sense of purpose and accomplishment in its volunteers and maybe build a sense of community that sometimes seems a nostalgic figment of the past.


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“If the river was rising and we lived in a little town, we would all go down to fill sandbags,” said Stoff. “We wouldn’t be waiting for [L.A. Councilman] Mike Bonin to do it. I am interested strictly in the people on the sidelines,” the ones who are at a loss for how to help.

So Stoff and Foos combined their considerable email lists and asked friends to contribute theirs.

“Our pitch was, if we set one thing at a time up, and brought it to people and asked them to help, they had an easy way to do it,” said Stoff. “Then it’s like physics — bodies in motion tend to stay in motion. And people would think they are part of the solution.”

Jennifer Caspar, who is on the board of Volunteer Collective and owns Village Well Books & Coffee in Culver City, said what she loves about the work is that it engages people “who have thrown up their hands and say these problems are intractable and we can’t do anything about them, and it’s better to turn away. Richard and Rick are so passionate about getting people engaged in small acts, which can lead to medium acts.”

So far, Volunteer Collective has thousands of people on its mailing list; Foos and Stoff are hoping for thousands more.

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“I feel like I am in a race against compassion fatigue,” said Stoff. “Even people I know from my Chrysalis days, they’ve had it. Visually, the city’s worse. Safety-wise they feel things are worse. I hate to see people’s hearts get all the way hardened.”


Volunteer Collective’s current project, Layer Up, seeks new and lightly used sweaters, jackets, pants, hats, boots and other winter clothing for children in the Boyle Heights Community of Schools, a constellation of 25 campuses with more than 10,000 students in one of the most economically challenged parts of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

In keeping with the philosophy of making small asks with short deadlines, the group has placed donation bins in 16 locations around Los Angeles County. Most will be open through Sunday evening; some will remain open until Tuesday evening. You can check the Volunteer Collective Facebook page for locations and other opportunities to pitch in.

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When they first decided to approach the Boyle Heights schools, Stoff and Foos were interested in offering tutoring and mentoring, but after speaking with Daniel Gettinger, the school community’s administrator, they were shocked to learn that warm clothing was an even more urgent need.

“Temperatures even in Los Angeles do dip,” Gettinger said. “This week, the lows are in the 40s, and one day it’s expected to drop to 38 or 39 degrees. Anything we can do to support our families is something we are happy about.”

From experience I know that being cold — even in balmy Los Angeles — is no joke.

Decades ago, when I was a kindergartner at Northridge Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley, I had a traumatic experience one frigid winter morning. I remember standing on the yard, shivering and shivering, waiting for the teacher to open the door.

When I finally walked into the warm cloakroom, I passed out, hitting my head on a toy dump truck. Some of you may disagree, but there was no lasting damage.


I thought about that scary childhood moment last week, as I dropped a few kids’ things into a Volunteer Collective bin behind the Men’s Wearhouse on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica.

It was a small gesture for sure, but if I can help a shivering kid stay warm, I’m all in.