First published in the Sept. 22 print issue of the Pasadena Outlook.
When Donna Pierson began volunteering at a local home for foster youth, some of whom were victims of abuse and sex trafficking, she aimed to bring a little joy to their lives with games, arts and treats — making a difference, one girl at a time.
But then she got to know them. And Pierson, not one to give up, doubled down with a go big or go home vision.
She formed the Give-Mentor-Love Foundation in 2019, recruiting a volunteer team to help make connections with and mentor young people in crises, at risk, homeless or in foster care, and victims of sex trafficking across all of Los Angeles County. To expand its reach, the GML Foundation also now partners with L.A. County Specialized Bureau for Commercial Sexual Exploited Children (CSEC), ZOE Los Angeles and Learning Works Charter School in Pasadena.
The nonprofit has honed a tailored, individual approach to mentoring, focusing on programs that teach life and social skills, financial and banking sense, healthy relationship building and life-long career goals.
But Give-Mentor-Love is just hitting its stride, Pierson said.
“There is so much more to be done, and we know what works now. Mentoring is what demonstrates to the youths that they are still worthwhile and loved and have a future,” she said. “Getting involved with these victims holistically, body, heart, mind and soul is the only method to totally heal them.”
Now, the foundation is unveiling an ambitious plan to help develop CSEC Transitional Aged Youth housing in Los Angeles County for young people 18-21 years old, who have aged out of the traditional foster care system yet continue to need additional support. The young adults are not ready to live independently, and need wraparound services to heal and stay on the right path for success.
Pierson has a tiny village in mind, billing it as “It takes a village to build a village.”
She envisions a large parcel of land with a community building, built with a few bedrooms for intensive care treatment, surrounded by a landscaped village of tiny homes, filled with meandering pathways and garden beds. A place where victims rescued from the sex trade and exploitation, and in-crises young adults, can live safely and independently — but with support — while they finish an undergraduate education or a trade school.
“These are young adults who are still traumatized children on the inside — what they have gone through causes long-lasting, devastating ripple effects to their self-worth and development. They have no living skills, no life skills,” said Pierson. “They’ve been pushed from one foster home to another, told to ‘go here or go there,’ never allowed to make their own decisions, until they’re just pushed out at 18,” said Pierson. “This is setting them up for failure. They need continued, intensive support and services until they are healed and thriving.”
At a Give-Mentor-Love tiny village, Pierson pictures a place where former foster youth return to become mentors and can stay connected through their shared bond. It would also provide a central location to build upon the five programs developed to teach life skills and social graces, interviewing tactics and the small steps necessary to achieve a dream career.
A small but mighty army of GML volunteers — local career women and men from all walks of life — have come to believe in the program and the success of making a personal connection with the youth. Several volunteers have been so inspired by the work they’ve pursued a master’s in social work or in marriage and family therapy to make a deeper impact.
Pasadena resident Kathy Lee recalled how Pierson first recruited her to volunteer with foster youth girls, recalling that “Donna’s passion and excitement” piqued her interest. She could soon see why.
“My experience with the girls really informed me on the importance of mental health and making it accessible and spreading awareness, it really ignited a passion for me too,” said Lee, noting that over the years she’s been able to help at-risk youth connect with resources, job placement and trade schools, which, though challenging, is immensely rewarding. “Working with students on an individual level really highlighted the life crises so many of these kids are going through. There are so many daily barriers, like not having gas money or not having a printer at home, a car accident or family difficulties. … It bends them and spreads them really thin emotionally. Having additional support to keep going is really critical.”
After spending time mentoring with Give-Mentor-Love foster youth, volunteer Liuska Rincon was also inspired to pursue her master’s in social work. She continues to mentor three girls individually, including one who is currently in prison after fleeing her pimp and making bad decisions, and another who is struggling in a mental institution after attempting suicide.
“These girls haven’t been given the opportunity to explore or make choices, and when they’re out in the world they don’t know how to make those good decisions,” Rincon said. “With patience and consistency — and caring, just nonjudgmental caring — we can help them plan for small goals and small steps. We help connect them to resources so they can make positive decisions. All it takes is positive reinforcement.”
Adria Romero is another GML volunteer who always had a heart for foster kids, perhaps influenced by her own parents taking in cousins to live with them when she was young.
“It’s been eye-opening to me just how many kids are in need. They need adults who are there for them, to show up, be consistent, just say ‘I believe in you’… simple things we take for granted. Some of these girls have never been told that, by anyone,” said Romero, noting how good it feels to make the girls laugh or smile. One young woman, after eating a Thanksgiving meal, said she had never had such a fancy dinner in her life.
All three women highly encourage others to volunteer at Give-Mentor-Love: “Donna is amazing and she is a fighter and a fierce advocate — I’ve learned a lot from her, and from all the other ladies in this group. They are a rock of support for these girls,” Rincon added.
The Give-Mentor-Love Foundation seeks volunteers, donations to its store where at-risk youth can “shop” for free, and support for its transitional housing tiny village. To learn more, visit givementorlove.org.