Amidst the packed gallery space of the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday evening, hundreds of people dressed in cocktail attire toasted to just under three dozen of the city's beautiful people. Neither models nor actors, however, those celebrated were the unsung heroes of Los Angeles.

The overall feeling of the evening was one of a need to communicate in order to understand what is needed to create large and meaningful change throughout the region.

For the exhibit titled Portraits of Compassion, local photographers Sam Comen, Stella Kalinina and Noé Montes, commissioned by the Califorinia Community Foundation, photographed each of the 30 individuals accompanied by a brief excerpt about the work each hero has done and continues to do to improve the place Angelenos call home.

Five heroes on the list are from South Los Angeles. They were recognized for their time and efforts in giving back to the community:

  • Dr. Cynthia Mendenhall: working for decades to reduce gang violence in partnership with Watts law enforcement.
  • Ann Jackson: a lifelong educator and administrator now volunteering her time advocating on behalf of the people of South L.A.
  • Hayward Gray: community volunteer working to keep South L.A. seniors active and healthy.
  • Damiek Barrow: Washington Preparatory high school teacher helping students turn personal trauma into art.
  • Santiago Ortega: turned a personal tragedy into triumph by founding a patient advocate program at St. Francis Medical Center.

"We want this exhibit to turn inspiration into action," said Antonia Hernández, president and CEO of CCF. "The Unsung Heroes teach us that acts of kindness, compassion, generosity and courage have a ripple effect that will multiply over countless lives."

Intersections spoke with three of the five South L.A. unsung heroes about their dedication, the importance of continuing their work, and what it means to them to be represented in an exhibit acknowledging the impact of voluntarism and advocacy.

Pass it on

The passing of the torch from one good Samaritan to another is an idea that South L.A. hero Ann Jackson feels strongly about.

Ann Jackson discusses the honor of being recognized for her work in community service and activism. (Marisa Zocco/Intersections South L.A.)
Ann Jackson discusses the honor of being recognized for her work in community service and activism. (Marisa Zocco/Intersections South L.A.)

Jackson, who was recognized for her dedication to her program Angels on Wheels with Meals, a food delivery service catering to senior citizens without food at the holidays, said she feels the spirit of voluntarism is one of the most important things she's taught her children.

Long grown, her children have a part in all that she is doing for the community, from setting up her cell phone to helping prepare meals for those she serves.

"It's wonderful to teach your children that it's not all about you. I don't care what color you are. We are all human beings," Jackson said. "People need each other so much—especially in South LA."

After retiring in 2004, Jackson said she noticed senior citizens who were going without food during holidays. Cooking for a small group at the holidays eventually bloomed into meals for hundreds each and every year.

Jackson, a former LAUSD employee, said she identifies with people she serves because they could have easily been her.

"These are people that I found out worked for the city and the school district—they had good jobs. They're forgotten people now. That could have been me," Jackson said. "We need to give back. As God gives to us we need to give back."

Beyond meals, Jackson said she also helps the community by inspiring the seniors in her neighborhood to advocate for their own needs—something she feels her peers haven't been taught to do.

The activist said she has seen the stark difference between community involvement in South L.A. and those in neighborhoods like Beverly Hills where members regularly attend meetings.

"I think South L.A. is one of the areas that they never attend the city council meeting to tell them what our needs are," Jackson said. "Nobody has ever told them, and I don't think they have the initiative to get up and go out. I make them go to city hall and see what's going on and let all the city council know that, 'hey I am alive!'"

On March 12, Jackson hopes to bring more than 400 community members out to meet City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson. She emphasized the importance of teaching not just seniors but also younger generations to take matters into their own hands.

"You don't sit and look for somebody to just hand it to you. You have to teach the school children that. You have got to get out and work for it because nobody owes you anything," Jackson said. "I have passed that on to my children so I tell them pass the torch because we need each other to live in this world. I need you, you need me, we all need each other. This world is a beautiful place."

Keep moving

For Hayward Gray, there is no time to sit still when it comes to his brand of voluntarism. The blue-eyed man was all smiles as he discussed his work as a volunteer worker teaching senior citizens how to stay fit.

Hayward Gray, recognized for his work in helping keep South L.A. seniors active, jokes about fitness. (Marisa Zocco/Intersections South L.A.)
Hayward Gray, recognized for his work in helping keep South L.A. seniors active, jokes about fitness. (Marisa Zocco/Intersections South L.A.)

Three days a week, Gray walks into the senior center where he volunteers, takes a seat and prepares to get his class' blood pumping.

"Not very long ago senior citizens thought that it was against the law to exercise," Gray jested. "And now they're beginning to exercise. My class is geared to make you feel good every day."

Gray emphasized that the goal of the hour-long class was not to help seniors lose weight, but to help them feel better internally. A majority of the exercises are done from a seated position. But that doesn't mean that Gray isn't taking a stand.

The retired assistant pharmacist said he feels strongly about giving back to the city he feels has given so much to him.

Gray moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles in 1955 because he said the Southern state didn't have any job opportunities for him, "being a Black man." After having taken jobs from flipping burgers to washing cars, Gray said someone encouraged him to apply for a position at UCLA. The school eventually paid him to attend classes with the promise of a job waiting when he completed the courses.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," Gray said. "They hired me full time in the pharmacy department as assistant pharmacist, helping."

Providing assistance is prominent in Gray's life. He said it was the pharmacist position that really sparked the service-driven part of him. He would pre-package medications and deliver them to veterans he said had lost "everything but their lives." The challenge of seeing these people suffering soon transformed into rewarding friendships that lasted years, and Gray wasn't quite ready to let that go.

"After retiring, I said I'm going to do volunteer work with the city of Los Angeles," said Gray.

He's been volunteering every week since he retired in 1991.

Gray said he doesn't have any plans to stop volunteering for the city he feels helped him get a leg up all those years ago. It's not so much South L.A., he said, as much as the city as whole.

"One thing I like about L.A. period is that it has helped a lot of people," Hayward said of the large amount of social programs and services he said make the state more expensive to live in. "California is my place and I'll be here for as long as I can and I'll be helping people as long as I'm alive."

It takes a village

When it came to Dr. Cynthia Mendenhall, an active community member leading programs geared to keep youth out of gangs, the advocate–also known as Sister Soldier in the Watts community–was quick to emphasize the impact that something as small as a surrogate family could have on the area's vulnerable youth.

Dr. Cynthia Mendenhall gives a gentle smile before discussing gang-prevention and her involvement with at-risk youth. (Marisa Zocco/Intersections South L.A.)
Dr. Cynthia Mendenhall gives a gentle smile before discussing gang-prevention and her involvement with at-risk youth. (Marisa Zocco/Intersections South L.A.)

An ex-gang member, Mendenhall said that she herself was a "bad seed" when she discovered the power in helping and in being helped. When she was a child and her parents were not at home, Mendenhall, her siblings and cousins received help from Black Panthers then located on the corner of 113th Street and Croesus Avenue.

"Even though some people said some of it was negative I still seen the positive side of the Black Panthers," Mendenhall said. "As I watched them do what they did to help us, I liked it and I liked to do social service."

With years of hard work spanning from the late 70s to the present, Mendenhall said she has had her hand in almost anything imaginable that involves community relations and conflict resolution in Watts.

That work, for Mendenhall, is spoken for in the award-winning drill team she leads; the programs she helps at-risk youth plan and implement to give them both leadership skills and a challenge to rise to; and in the current programs she is developing in the hopes of better representing the growing population of Latinos in Watts.

"The kids is playing while the parents is teaching the hate. So we had to bring programs to the community for the Brown and Black community members," Mendenhall said. "We gotta start making the youth accountable and stop blaming other people for what's going on in our communities."

This means engaging the entire community from children to parents and up—involving the whole village.

Mendenhall said that as it was when she was younger, so it is now that for at-risk kids, resources and centers that can provide community connections—a home away from home, and a family away from family—are key.

"I didn't have the support I needed to have at home so the gym and recreation. . . was my home," said Mendenhall.

Unsung Heroes find a community

Each of the three South L.A. unsung heroes whom Intersections spoke with held the belief that networks were more powerful in creating an impact than individuals and felt that the Portraits of Compassions exhibit and cocktail reception helped highlight the importance of connectivity.

While Jackson emphasized the importance of being able to share her story while also hearing of others' experiences as provided by the exhibit, Gray really drove the idea home that it was his having received help that inspired him to continue aiding others in their mobility.

Through the universal language of photography, each of the personalities and causes of the 30 unsung heroes featured in Portraits of Compassion were captured and hung on the gallery walls of the Plaza de Cultura y Artes. Quotes from each hero were displayed alongside the images.

Among the walls and crowds visiting on Saturday evening, heroes like Jackson said it was a privilege to connect and share so many unique experiences that demonstrate, overall, what CCF said in the event's press release is a compassion for others and a common theme of "a deep desire to build a better Los Angeles."

"To come out here and tell our story—and to meet all the different people who have a different story, and be able to listen," Jackson said, "I think is something beautiful that other people should know about and [something that should] be expanded."

The exhibition came in celebration of CCF's first 100 years of service as the third-oldest community foundation and a permanent philanthropic resource which, according to a press release, aims to respond to the needs of the region.

Portraits of Compassion is on display and will be open to the public through April 4 at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes located at 501 N. Main Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Admission is free.

Reach Staff Reporter Marisa Zocco here. Follow her on Twitter here.