Los Angeles Room & Board’s Opportunity House opens doors to brighter futures for underserved college students

By Caden Sullivan

Los Angeles Room & Board founder Dr. Sam Prater established The Opportunity House to help college students facing food and housing insecurity succeed. Photo by Luis Chavez.

Earlier this fall, as many university students worldwide forwent moving into campus dormitories due to the COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of college-aged former foster youths moved into a Westwood mansion, thanks to the efforts of Los Angeles Room & Board.

On Sept. 5, the nonprofit welcomed around 30 college students facing food and housing insecurity to The Opportunity House, a vacant 50-bed sorority house near UCLA’s campus. Over the next two years, the residence will offer free, then reduced room and board ($300 per month) to former foster youth now enrolled in higher ed. In the current state of California’s housing crunch and the COVID-19 crisis, this opportunity has never been more critical.

Los Angeles Room & Board, or LARB, was founded in May 2019 to create a safe, supportive environment for community college students in need of one. The nonprofit’s founder, Dr. Sam Prater, began this initiative after observations he made in student housing. “One in five community college students in Los Angeles are facing housing insecurity,” he says, “and two thirds of those students are also experiencing hunger.”

“Watching students being pushed out and knowing that there are vacant dorm rooms” in 2018 drove Prater to create the organization, secure funding for The Opportunity House, and simultaneously address food insecurity. (Among Opportunity House’s partners are several charitable foundations and Everytable, an organization with the mission “to transform the food system to make delicious, nutritious food accessible to everyone, everywhere.” Everytable provides three free meals a day to every student in The Opportunity House. On top of providing food, the organization hosts monthly workshops and food demos to educate Opportunity House residents on cooking for themselves past their
college years.)

Students entering The Opportunity House come from experiences as traumatic as childhood abuse, loss of an entire family, and forced homelessness. To help tenants cope with these devastating experiences, LARB has assembled a team of mentors to assist with financial literacy, mental health/wellness and interpersonal leadership. In addition to academic tutors, these mentors are available to any student in The Opportunity House at no cost. Later in the semester, LARB will connect resident students to internship and career development organizations.

In addition to these career-building resources, the community alone gives students a chance to network and make connections outside of their own colleges. One of the most unique aspects of this home is that young people live and study with students from other schools. Opportunity House students attend UCLA, Cal-State University Northridge, Santa Monica College (SMC), Pasadena City College (PCC) and West Los Angeles College (WLAC).

Pre’ cous Mcjimson, an aspiring nurse at WLAC, is already seeing the benefit of rooming with a student from another school. She and her roommate, a student at SMC, both study health, so they’re already finding ways to integrate their studies and work together despite their separate institutions.

However, Mcjimson believes the greatest benefit of The Opportunity House is the stable, supportive environment it provides. Having lost her mother at 16 and been raised in an abusive environment, she discovered The Opportunity House through the EOPS (Extended Opportunities, Programs, and Services) Office at WLAC. Describing her new home, Mcjimson said, “We’re so comfortable. Like a lot of us were saying the other day, we already feel like we’ve been here for months, and it’s only been a week and a half.”

Budding entrepreneur Joseph Merchain, a business student at Pasadena City College who also goes by The Big General, described his life’s turn as going “from carrying a gun to carrying my bookwork.” Joseph says he experienced racism in traditional transitional housing, so he contacted his mentor at A²MEND (African American Male Networking and Development) to search for a safer place to stay. His mentor referred him to Dr. Prater, and now Merchain is taking full advantage of living in Westwood to forward the mission of his apparel organization, Just Minorities Merchain (instagram.com/justminorities).

Merchain’s own suffering with sexual abuse, homelessness and racism have fueled his desire to help others and build up other young minorities in difficult situations. He believes there’s real value to living in Westwood, saying, “I’m already scoping out where to sell my T-shirts and who to network with.”

Before moving into The Opportunity House, Merchain raised $1,588 at Pasadena City Hall for his organization. Now that his housing is secure, his plans have gotten even bigger.

To learn more or donate to Los Angeles Room & Board visit larnb.org/donate now.