THE BLOG

Changing the World One Family at a Time

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the years I've been working with homeless families, I've learned there's a very thin line between the people who are homeless and the people who aren't. In today's economy, this line is thinner than ever before.

My mother, Patti Rayner, started the Heartfelt Foundation 30 years ago. She is still the executive director and the organization's sole paid employee. The cornerstone of the Heartfelt Foundation since the very beginning has been respect, dignity and loving connections. I want to share with you my experiences and what they've meant to me.

When I was young, my mother realized that she couldn't solve the entire homeless problem. She began by doing what she could, one person and one family at a time. I would go with her on her trips, handing out toys to children in shelters around Christmastime. Over the years, our services became more organized: hot meals and hugs for the homeless, school supplies and smiles for at-risk and disadvantaged children, holiday feasts and festivals for impoverished families, helping relocate homeless families from shelter living, Valentines and validation for forgotten seniors.

What began in 1979 as a one-time local project in southern California is today a respected 30-year-old global volunteer network. Under the tireless, dedicated direction of my mother, Patti, more than 50,000 individuals have helped nourish and nurture well over 500,000 men, women, children, families and seniors in need. Heartfelt has been twice-nominated for the President's National Service Award, and received the Outstanding Volunteer Group award from the County of Los Angeles.

Heartfelt's Mission Statement -- Changing people's lives through the healing power of heartfelt service -- had a profound effect on me from an early age. You see, what makes Heartfelt different from other organizations is that our volunteer base is out there in the streets, getting to know people face-to-face. We aren't giving people a hand-out; we're giving them a relationship.

Volunteers get a full experience of love, compassion and joy. The people we serve know they are loved. They've been looked in the eye. They've been touched. And they realize they are not alone. My mother and Heartfelt are on a continuous mission to seek out those individuals most in need, whether it's working directly with Katrina survivors or simply survivors of hard times on the brink of homelessness.

Each holiday season, we plan a one-of-a-kind event for children. In December, homeless children and underprivileged students from impoverished schools are bussed to the Santa Monica Pier to receive gifts, go on rides, and take all the hot dogs they can eat. This is an experience that both the children and our volunteers never forget.

heartfelt christmas event

heartfelt christmas event

heartfelt

Last year, we had our own Christmas miracle. A single mother and her six children who had been staying at a mission on Skid Row wanted to come to our Christmas event at the Santa Monica pier. As anyone who's driven in L.A. knows, from downtown to Santa Monica on the bus can be a significant time commitment. They arrived late and were told that there were no more gifts. This wonderful family got back on the bus, empty-handed.

Patti talked to the mother on the phone and implored her to come back to Santa Monica. My mother and a volunteer filled sacks with all the clothing and small toys they could carry. Still wanting to do more, she called the Heartfelt Service Board, of which I am a member, and before the end of the day, we'd approved a grant of $900 to move this family of seven people into low-cost housing.

Here's how my mother describes what happened next:

One miracle moved into another and on December 23, several of us showed up at the mission, jammed our cars full of children, bags of belongings, and the disbelieving mom, and traveled 25 miles to see what awaited them. And to our shock and surprise, there was a beautiful, brand new, fully furnished, turnkey, five bedroom, two bath, new everything apartment waiting for this dear family. The children were beside themselves with joy and the rest of us couldn't close our mouths. It was a true Christmas miracle!

We left them that night -- warm, safe, hopeful, overjoyed, and with a brand new life afoot -- which continues to this day.

These are the stories that fulfill us and make our work so rewarding. And for this reason, I hope you'll join us as the Heartfelt Foundation celebrates its 30th anniversary with a benefit gala on Saturday, November 7, in Marina Del Rey, CA. This fundraiser will support and finance the holiday outreach event and the 2010 service year, and we need your help.

Feel free to head over to our website to contribute or consider volunteering. I was shown the value of public service from an early age, and I can't recommend it enough for you or your children. I promise you won't regret it.