While working with gang members and those who had left gang life in East Los Angeles more than 20 years ago, Father Gregory Boyle realized that these young men eventually needed to find work if they were to stay on the path to stable lives. That is when he started Homeboy Industries, a network of small businesses whose centerpiece is its Homeboy Bakery and recently, the Homegirl Caf/.
One of their latest enterprises has set up shop at the Mar Vista Farmers Market, where they have been busy selling baked goods for approximately 10 months amid glowing reviews from patrons as well as elected officials.
Mar Vista Farmers Market Manager Diana Rodgers said Homeboy has been well received at the market since their arrival last year.
“A lot of people have known about Homeboy,” Rodgers said. “When they first came in, we were thrilled to see them, and that remains the case.”
Founded in 1988 by Boyle in Boyle Heights, the organization has grown exponentially over the last 20-plus years. Boyle, known affectionately to many of the young men and women whom he has helped over the years as “Father G” or “G-Dog,” believes that the ex-gang members, who are now employed, law-abiding citizens, were missing something that is central to everyone’s life.
“People encounter a family and a community (at Homeboy),” the organization’s executive director said during an interview in his downtown Los Angeles office last month. “And community always trumps gangs.”
The youth program also offers counseling, legal services, job development, tattoo removal, yoga, spiritual development and parenting classes, among other services. It recently added a charter high school at its $8.5-million headquarters downtown, which opened in 2007.
Marco DiDioniso, who directs Homeboy’s farmers market projects, said the Mar Vista market is his favorite.
“People come here like it’s a social gathering,” said DiDioniso, who lived in Italy for 18 years and drew certain comparisons with the farmers markets there and Mar Vista’s.
“There’s a very positive energy and we’re really happy to be here.”
While Homeboy’s roots are firmly planted in East Los Angeles soil, its outreach has extended to gang members from all across Los Angeles, including Venice. “People from all parts of Los Angeles County come to help out and to get our services,” Boyle said.
How Homeboy came to Mar Vista was somewhat serendipitous. Rodgers happened to be downtown at the Homegirl Caf/ having lunch with friends one afternoon when she happened to meet the caf/’s baker.
“A friend of mine’s kids went to school with the baker’s kids and as we were talking I told him about our farmers market,” Rodgers recalled. “Then I met Marco and later, I took a tour of the facility and invited them to come.”
Boyle said the experience of having a location in Mar Vista has been a good one for the young men who work at the booths. “It’s a way of marrying the two communities,” he said.
Fourth District County Supervisor Don Knabe, who helped the organization secure a $1.3-million grant last Sept. 14, is a fan of Homeboy as well as Boyle.
“He’s one of my true heroes,” Knabe told The Argonaut. “The difference that he has made in changing these young folks’ lives is truly amazing.”
Rodgers said the farmers markets have been instrumental in increasing Homeboy’s revenues after they were forced to lay off employees during the economic downturn.
“About a year ago, we laid off about 330 people, so it really was about finding a way to bring them back in (by employing workers in the markets and the bakery),” DiDioniso said. “We’re doing 29 markets a week, and people love being here at Mar Vista.”
DiDioniso said it was a learning experience for some of the young men. “When they first get out here they’re a little shy and not used to interacting,” he acknowledged. “But after a few weeks they know all of the prices, they know about the bread and they’re interacting with people.
“The people here in Mar Vista have been great, and I love to see that interaction develop.”
It all started with Boyle, a humble man who during a 45-minute interview displayed his multi-tasking skills by juggling paperwork, visits by well-wishers and employees, and phone calls.
Virtually every day, he is invited to a “homie’s” wedding, baby shower, birthday or christening.
“It’s very heartwarming,” he said.
Rodgers thinks a lot of Homeboy’s customers at the Mar Vista Farmers Market come because of the food as well as the organization’s long and storied history.
“I think whenever there’s a story behind something people are drawn to it,” she said. “It’s an L.A. story, and to be able to see these rehabilitated guys who have been through a lot learn a trade and become a part of the community, you can’t beat that.
“Not to mention that they sell delicious bread and pastries,” Rodgers added with a laugh.
Mar Vista resident Sarah Auerswald, who lives two bocks from the farmers market, agrees with Rodgers.
“I love what they’re about and love supporting them. And it’s great they come to Mar Vista,” she said. “I love their bread, and we usually get a chocolate croissant each week for my son as well.”
Knabe said another reason that he admires Boyle is because of Homeboy’s employment component.
“As an elected official, one of the things that is very difficult is putting people to work,” the supervisor said. “His successes greatly outweigh the losses, and what he’s been able to do is truly a life-changing experience for these young folks.”
Boyle said the success of the youth program is based on the commitment for members to lead a life free of crime and feeling like they belong to something special.
“It works because of the palpable sense of community,” he concluded. “We expect people to work on themselves here, and that’s where resiliency comes into it.”