LOS ANGELES - In the heart of Watts, a minority neighborhood in south Los Angeles, 300 volunteers gathered on a recent Sunday to beautify an elementary school. Amid the poverty in this area, local residents and youngsters, and volunteers from other neighborhoods, pitched in to help.
Many students at Lovelia Flournoy Elementary School live in Nickerson Gardens, a public housing complex that 50 years ago gave birth to the Bounty Hunter Bloods, a notorious street gang.
School is a refuge for these students, and many joined their parents, planting trees and flowers, painting murals in the hallways and preparing bags of food for local families. For some volunteers, the project marked an opportunity to give back to the community.
Jesus Enrique Arrocha, a teaching assistant taking a break from digging a garden, said the adults were leading by example to "make sure that the kids understand hard work and they see that (we're) making the campus beautiful, not only just for them but for the next generation."
"There are challenges," said Robin Arrocha, the school's psychiatric social worker. "But the kids are amazing, and the teachers work really hard to help their kids out and do as much as they can."
The volunteer day was sponsored by Big Sunday, a charity that recruits people for community services projects on weekends and other days throughout the year.
Big Sunday started 20 years ago as a single Sunday devoted to service, said founder David Levinson, a Hollywood scriptwriter who organized the first event as part of an outreach at his synagogue. It grew into a charity that included Christians and others. Today, it is secular and non-political.
"We're a community-building organization, he said. "Our mission is to connect people through helping."
Volunteers from all walks of life came from many parts of Los Angeles, including Watts.
"We're just beautifying the school, and the kids are enjoying it and having fun," said Liliana Gonzalez Suarez, the mother of a Flournoy student. She has been involved in the school's activities for the past nine years, as her children have progressed through the grades. Today, she's filling bags with donated food for local families.
Nesly Trazile, who came with a group of volunteers from the web-based organic food company Thrive Market, said the volunteer work "gives me an opportunity to widen my experience and knowledge of different people and different lifestyles."
2,000 events a year
Big Sunday produces, promotes or sponsors more than 2,000 events a year to build community ties, said founder Levinson. It is needed now, he said.
"We live in very divisive times, very fraught times. But I think when we turn off the TV, we turn off the internet, put down the newspaper for a minute, most people want to focus on what we share, what we have in common, and how we can make our world a better place together," he said.