Penny Landreth has seen the value of serving her community first hand. For the past three decades, the upper elementary art teacher and her husband Ted have actively helped to support some of West Hollywood's most vulnerable citizens. The couple has served and advocated for the homeless, first through the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition (GWHFC) and now, more recently, with an offshoot of the GWHFC called The Flying Squad. Their service to the community has also helped The Center carry forward its own commitment to its neighborhood as well.
When the couple answered a call from the City of West Hollywood to feed the homeless back in 1987, they saw it as an opportunity to educate their then-teenage children in the value of helping others.
"We thought it was important for our children to begin to develop a social conscience and to recognize that they could be a part of the solution to a growing social problem—hunger and homelessness," Penny said. "As ex-New Yorkers, in the car culture of Los Angeles it was more of a challenge than it might have been in New York to instill empathetic hearts in our children. Here we drive by, whereas in New York we would sit next to the homeless on the subway."
Soon after they began volunteering with the GWHFC the organization was feeding a hundred people in Plummer Park. Eventually, regular patrons of the park became less-than-enthusiastic about the number of homeless people gathered there nightly for meals and pressured the city to compel the GWHFC to move on.
"At that point we needed to go independent," Penny explained. "We discovered markets, restaurants, and studios that were willing to donate their surplus food so that we could create a high-end, nutritious meal nightly, and we moved across the border to the industrial intersection of Sycamore and Romaine in Hollywood."
Despite having been forced to move from one kitchen to another ten times over the years, Penny explained that the quality of the food that the GWHFC offers has never been compromised. "Our meal of soup, salad, casseroles, bread, fruit, and desserts has been served every night, seven nights a week, by a growing corps of volunteers of all ages," Penny said. "Serving a delicious meal with a smile and a welcoming conversation is almost as life-sustaining as the food itself."
Students at The Center were early partners with the GWHFC. With CEE's strong emphasis on service, it became a natural fit to work alongside the organization in supporting their mission. The Center's "Sandwiches for the Hungry" program, a series of opportunities throughout the year for students, faculty and staff to make sandwiches on campus that will be delivered to the GWHFC to serve to clients, is one of CEE's longest running service opportunities. In addition, students in The Center's Early Childhood program participate in making soup that is given to the GWHFC, often with muffins wrapped with sweetly-written notes included.
"Part of any education must engage children with an awareness that they can make a difference in the world," Penny said. "When we would bring our young grandchildren to Sycamore and Romaine and they would hand a homeless person a plate of food, you can't imagine how it made that person's day. A joyous smile would suddenly appear where there had been nothing but tight lips and downcast eyes. For a brief moment there was a connection and a surprising interaction with a child. What could be better than that?"
It didn't take long for Penny and Ted to recognize that many of their clients' needs were far more complex and challenging than simply needing a meal. And while serving high-quality food to those in need always remained a priority for them, eventually—as a natural outgrowth of their service to their clients—they began exploring other ways that they could help.
"Being homeless is very complicated, and all-too-often the 'social service' agencies— most of them overwhelmed themselves— offer bureaucratic solutions which are inaccessible to those barely coping on the street," Penny explained. "Every client has a different story as to how he or she ended up in such dire circumstances, and most of the time there is no one to listen to the story."