A Community Place Helps Out

United Ministry project aids those in need while educating the USC community about local issues.
by Sharon Stewart
Eva Thai, on staff at A Community Place, a social service referral agency located at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on Vermont Ave., chats with Diane Kenney, religious director of the Office of Religious Life at USC’s United Ministry. Thai, a Claremont School of Theology graduate student, is an intern at United Ministry. Kenney said the one-room agency where Thai works hands out sack lunches and bus or taxi tokens to those in need. USC students volunteer at the agency and USC School of Social Work faculty serve on the agency’s advisory committee.

Photo by Irene Fertik
A Community Place provides the cure for that feeling of helplessness and indecision whenever someone who appears to be hungry or homeless asks for spare change.

The new social service referral agency at 3651 S. Vermont Ave., a project of United Ministry at USC, can also help educate the USC community about poverty, said Diane Kenney.

“One of our primary goals is to provide a way for USC students, faculty and staff to recognize and relate to issues of poverty, hunger and homelessness and to learn from those encounters,” said Kenney, who helped found A Community Place. “The second equally important goal is to provide primary services such as food and transportation, as well as referrals for shelter, jobs and health care.”

Kenney, religious director of the Office of Religious Life at USC’s United Ministry, said the referral service each week hands out 30 to 50 sack lunches and about 50 bus or taxi tokens.

“We have also begun to hand out kids’ lunches to families with children,” she said.

A Community Place – located in a small, single room at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church with an entrance off the church parking lot – is a campus-community response to hunger and homelessness, Kenney said.

“Faculty from the USC School of Social Work have come forward to serve on our advisory committee,” she said. “And students, staff and faculty research social-service providers to make sure that we send people to the best places.”

Students also work as volunteers, bagging lunches and handing out the transportation tokens, Kenney said.

The dream of the center became a reality in October, thanks to several small grants, donations of food, and volunteers who helped write grant proposals.

“I don’t know of any other university with a similar program, one that involves a pooling of community and university resources to help the homeless,” Kenney said. “We really believe that people who choose to go to this university should relate to the larger community; we should all be able to learn from our urban setting.”

Jennifer Duran, a freshman from San Jose, agrees.

“I’ve learned a lot about the community that surrounds USC, and the people who are part of it, from my work at A Community Place,” said Duran, who is a communications major. “I benefited academically too, since 10 percent of my final grade in my Sociology 155 course, Immigrant America, was based on those experiences.”

Holding monthly training sessions and forums on homelessness is central to A Community Place’s mission, said Eva Thai, a Claremont School of Theology graduate student who is serving an urban internship with United Ministry.

“When students come to our trainings, they start that process of critical thinking about this issue even if they don’t become volunteers,” she said. “We discuss their views, questions they have had about homelessness, the characteristics of homeless people and why they are homeless.”

Organizations and churches involved in establishing the center include United University Church, The Catholic Center, the Latter-day Saints Center, Hillel and the Ecumenical Mission of the University Religious Center. Initial funding was provided by the United Ministry, the Ecumenical Mission, the Los Angeles United Methodist Urban Foundation and United University Church.