Sunday, April 15, 2012

Lorena Chavez: The Sentinel

AT A university overlooking a busy metropolis, the office of Lorena Chavez breaches the gap between the city and the bluff of Loyola Marymount. A cross, a framed poem, and pottery decorate the office, coloring otherwise bare white walls. Files rest neatly secure within cabinets, and a blank table sits at the ready for her next meeting. Inside, Chavez speaks with two students, filling the room with her contagious goodwill.

Here at LMU’s Center for Service and Action, Chavez serves as the assistant director of Community Engagement. The CSA office, located at the heart of campus, is the university’s powerhouse for student involvement in some of Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhoods. As a facilitator, Chavez’s work helps bridge the divide between LMU students and the Los Angeles community through service opportunities. Throughout the past eight years, she has helped create programs to connect nonprofits with volunteers. Students have the chance to explore realms outside of LMU, gaining greater understanding of social issues and cultural dynamics existing in the city.

“Sometimes I see myself like a window screen,” Chavez said. “[I’m] screening the opportunities, and letting [in] the ones that are gonna provide students with a good learning and service opportunity.”

Alongside her work at CSA, Chavez is also completing graduate studies in a public policy administration program at California Sate Long Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in psychology in 1999 at LMU, along with a minor in business and a second minor in alcohol and drug studies. Already familiar with the university’s focus on social justice and service for others, Chavez started working at CSA just a few years after graduation. It was a dynamic environment, she said, where she could combine her academic studies with her love of understanding others.

Many nonprofit organizations contact Chavez interested in building a volunteer program. When going through the selection process, Chavez says she looks for organizations that have a purpose similar to LMU’s mission statement. She spends time researching and visiting each placement to assess its role within its community and to ensure its safety for students. When she’s not in the office, an average day for Chavez might involve driving around Los Angeles, GPS navigation in hand, checking out a potential volunteer location.

But back at the Center for Service and Action, Chavez’s work consists of a lot of communication: on the phone, sending emails, or having meetings with students or nonprofit leaders. She monitors current programs and checks-in to make sure everything runs smoothly.

“It’s not something that just happens at LMU,” Chavez said. “You’re also having interactions with an external audience, so that requires even extra care [and] attention.

One program Chavez has worked with specifically over the years is Underwings Praxis, a campus service club. She has served as the group’s moderator since its inception in 2003. The club members volunteer at four different sites, all located in the community of East Los Angeles: Homeboy Industries, Guadalupe Homeless Project, Dolores Mission Elementary after school program, and Base Communities. Each student’s experience while volunteering contributes toward opening windows of change, breaking down barriers of misunderstanding, and diminishing prejudice. Students interact with the underprivileged, the marginalized, or the homeless – people they would otherwise never meet – and learn the complex layers of social stratification.

“Even though [Underwings] was never the thing that was on my job description, it has become a very deep part of my life,” Chavez said. Although she was not required to assist the service club, she was willing to develop a framework for the program in its first year. The founding students then asked her to be the group’s permanent moderator.

Chavez mentioned, however, that guiding a program through development is only half of the process. A successful program can only survive with the endurance of love, she said. “You can teach them how to fill out a grant application – but you can’t teach them how to love,” Chavez said.

Love of Dolores Mission, a private Jesuit elementary school, came naturally to the founding members of Underwings Praxis. They connected with it in such a powerful way that Chavez herself struggled to describe. It felt like a home to the students, a place where they belonged, she explained. “There was this very deep rooted relationship between LMU and the community, that I had nothing to do with, you know. That was just the students,” Chavez said.

From that point, three other sites were developed in East Los Angeles, shaping a volunteer program that centered on one community and the social issues it faced. Each volunteer site related to a different issue: education, homelessness, ex-gang member rehabilitation and prevention, and social awareness through group dialogue. By linking these four placements, LMU students could achieve belonging and unity with the community through their weekly volunteer work.

“To this day, I cannot find – when I look at other models of other programs that are university supported – I cannot find another model that looks like Underwings,” Chavez said. She has presented the program’s model to other university programmers at citywide conferences. Few other organizations have implemented the innovative structure that shapes Underwings.

Chavez is still a source of guidance for the club’s executive board members through weekly meetings. She mentions how much she enjoys working with college-age students, although she has mentored youths of all ages in the past. For three years she worked for the Scott Newman Center, an organization that works to prevent drug abuse through the use of education.

Working for and with others is essential to Chavez. She is a “big picture” person, as she describes herself, and must lead a life that serves a greater purpose. “I’ve been doing community work ever since I have memory,” she said. “It was just a way of life, it was just what you did, because, that was what our duty was.”

Growing up in Lincoln Heights in the 80s, Chavez attended private Catholic schools from elementary to high school. Chavez’s parents stressed the importance of education as she and her sister grew up in Los Angeles. Before immigrating to the United States from Mexico, her mother and father were unable to complete schooling there, due to the need to financially support their parents and younger siblings.

Despite the prevalence of gang violence in her hometown, Chavez said she grew up generally unaware of the surrounding conflicts. She remembers exploring in the hills of Lincoln Heights, going to carnivals in Long Beach, and playing baseball with friends. Reflecting on her childhood, Chavez recognizes the effort her parents made to shield her and her sister from the prevalent influences of drug abuse and gang involvement. Their family moved frequently to different parts of Los Angeles, leaving certain neighborhoods if the environment worsened there.

“I realized what I do has been not only a reflection of where I come from,” Chavez said. “It’s been a life of service my entire life.”

Although her work is often indirectly involved, Chavez creates programs that lift up others to places of opportunity. The students, in turn, are able to impact the lives of others. “If I am able to help you, you can help somebody else, and it keeps on going forward. Although I may never be able to meet the individuals that you touch, all the world is going to be better for it,” Chavez said. As a true fulfillment of the name Underwings, Chavez is the gush of air beneath a student’s wings; she is the unseen support in the upward flight of human understanding and compassion.

--Jennifer Pellerito

Photo Credit: TK

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