Antoinette Reynolds was lucky to have a good role model. Her mother, Mildred Reynolds, was one of the original members of the Oakwood Beautification Committee started in 1989 to help make Oakwood a safe place to live.

Mildred’s biggest project was called Angel Tree. In order to understand what Angel Tree is, we have to go back to the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. Charles Colson, called the “hatchet man” for President Richard Nixon, was sent to prison on Watergate-related charges. In 1976, Colson founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, which claims to have become the world’s largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, crime victims and their families.

To stop the cycle of crime and poverty, Prison Fellowship introduced Angel Tree, a program that provides Christmas presents to children of inmates on behalf of their incarcerated parents.

In Venice, that program is carried on under the auspices of the New Bethel Baptist Church where Mildred was a member.

“My mom started doing a lot of outreach through the Oakwood Beautification Committee and the New Bethel Baptist Church,” says Antoinette. “So when she passed away 14 years ago I thought that I should continue some of the work that she was doing.”

It didn’t happen right away. Antoinette spent 15 years working at the Arthur Ashe Wellness Center at UCLA. “I always knew I was going to do community work,” she says. “I started visioning it around 2000 and it just came into being.”

The result was the Mildred Cursh Foundation, whose purpose is to offer support to the families of prisoners and mentor their children who are living in economically depressed conditions. It is located at the Vera Davis Center.

In addition to the seasonal Angel Tree gifts at Christmas and Angel Tree Camping one week during the summer, the foundation’s Learning Companion Youth Project, an after-school enrichment program developed especially for children of the incarcerated, is offered year-round for children ages five to 15.

Anticipating learning difficulties, the curriculum of the Learning Companion Youth Project seeks to motivate the students to find the “hero” within themselves and to show them how to develop their own “possibilities.” It is also offered to children whose parents are not in prison.

Last year Antoinette added a new program from Sound Art, which is a Los Angeles nonprofit organization that uses music to enrich the lives of inner city children.

“In some of the schools there’s not a lot of music,” she says. “Sound Art is a traveling music program. They bring professional instructors who teach the kids how to read and write and play the music.

“Last year it was so successful that they’ve totally accepted us and waived the bill for the ten weeks. They said, ‘We want to work with you and we’re going to make this grow, so we’re adding an extra day and we’re going to come up with some marketing to find the resources so the kids can have the extra music.'”

There are over 150 students in the after-school program data base and currently over 60 students are students enrolled, with an average of 16 coming three times a week.

“The rest of the students who are in our data base are drop-ins — they come periodically,” says Antoinette. “Mostly that’s due to lack of parent support.

“The kids that come consistently do because their parents understand the importance of education.” The rest of the students don’t come regularly because of their environment, she says. “It’s sad, because it’s free, we have snacks and it’s safe.”

In addition, the Mildred Cursh Foundation distributes food to the community twice a month. It has contracts with the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), the Long Beach Food Bank and the Los Angeles Food Bank.

“We also spend about $100 a month to buy extra food for the Oakwood seniors that is usually paid for by the Vera Davis Center staff,” says Antoinette. “If you figure how much the seniors have to spend on prescriptions, we want to at least give them some of the items that they normally have to purchase — perishables like orange juice.”

The community makes contributions, too, such as from Phoenix House, which donates extra fresh bread.

The Mildred Cursh Foundation has grown in the last year and a half and it’s not slowing down.

“We’re now gearing up for after-care, so when the inmates get out they will have a facility where they can go for resume writing,” says Antoinette. “We will help reeducate them to go out in the work force to get jobs and to reunite with their families.”

Antoinette attributes the growth to the partnerships that have been developed.

“Resources are the key,” she says.

The California State Department of Education and the Durfee Foundation are both supporters.

Several staff members come from Loyola Marymount University through their Work Study Program.

“LMU pays 75 percent of the salary; the foundation is required to pay 25 percent,” says Antoinette.

Other staffers come from Verbum Dei, a Los Angeles Archdiocesan four-year college preparatory school for boys located in Watts. The school’s Corporate Work Study Program provides students with real-world job experiences and allows them to earn a portion of the cost of their education.

“Sometimes corporations that have the funding can’t always house the students in a working environment,” says Antoinette, “so they find nonprofits who don’t have the money but can train them. So, it’s a community helping one another and everyone benefits — student, school, corporation and nonprofit.”

LA Shares, through Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s office, provides office supplies.

“I don’t have to shop at Staples often,” says Antoinette. “It’s a great program.”

Albertsons grocery stores offers a community partnership where the foundation gets four percent of what their clients’ purchase at the store.

The IHOP restaurant on Manchester Avenue in Westchester supports the yearly fundraiser for Angel Tree Camping. Allan’s furniture store donated bookshelves and helped monetarily. Private donations are always welcome too.

Antoinette also acknowledges help she has received, in addition to the Vera Davis Center staff, from other organizations at the center. The Mildred Cursh Foundation uses Venice Arts’ van to pick up students after school and uses the office and computers of Team Tech.

The foundation has been at the center for only three years and it has grown tremendously in what it offers. There is a constant need for funds to maintain the programs and to provide more. Antoinette has been asked how she figured it all out.

“Some people don’t believe in visions,” she says. “But, if you dream, your dreams can come true.”

Information, www.mildred curshfoundation.com

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