03/14/2011 09:50 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Giving Back: How You And The LA Community Can Help Struggling Families

Today, as HuffPost and AOL unite to launch the Huffington Post Media Group, we're celebrating by making a statement about the importance of giving back and helping others.

Led by HuffPost Impact –- The Huffington Post's section devoted to service, causes, and volunteering -- every HuffPost section is featuring a group or individual who is taking action and inspiring others during these challenging times. Like the rest of the world, our hearts and minds are also focused on Japan, and we've created a resource page for everyone wishing to support the emergency relief efforts.

And we're thrilled to announce that Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, is joining the Huffington Post Media Group as Strategic Adviser For Social Impact. Stone will help the company to create innovative social impact and cause-based initiatives.

AOL/Huffington Post Media Group has also issued a 30-day Service Challenge to every one of its employees worldwide, encouraging them to give their time to non-profits in their local communities and organizing volunteer events in 16 cities.

We hope you'll join us in utilizing the power of online journalism to help people get involved, work together, and bring about real change.

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Kathleen Pitt grew up in the foster care system and bounced between jail and prison as an adult. She had given birth to five children, each of them taken away from her by the state. In 2007, with her sixth child on the way, Kathleen vowed to end the cycle.

At that point, she had been living clean and sober for a while, but her past drug dealing convictions (“sales,” as she called them) disqualified her from collecting state benefits that would have helped keep her and her newborn daughter afloat. She explained to the Huffington Post, “I had no HUD, no welfare, no nothing. But I knew that I had to take care of my child by myself.”

She arrived at Hope Gardens Family Center with a two-month old infant, thankful for the free food, lodging, daycare, and 24-hour security. After completing their two-year program, which includes life skills counseling, work training, and personal development, Kathleen now has her own apartment and works on the maintenance crew at Hope Gardens. She also sponsors other women through the Narcotics Anonymous process and said proudly, “I pay for Zoe totally by myself, and it is because Hope Gardens gave me a chance.”

Hope Gardens Family Center is the brainchild of Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission and his predecessors in Downtown Los Angeles. The mission has been in operation since 1891, and in 1980, URM was the first shelter in Los Angeles to accept families and children. But when Bales first joined the organization as CEO in April 2005, he was devastated by the emotional and psychological toll that street life was taking on the young children at the center. While the mission helped thousands, families at the shelter are in the heart of Skid Row, surrounded by scenes of violent crime, drug abuse and sex acts.

When Hope Gardens Family Center was completed in 2007, homeless women and children finally had a beautiful and safe place to start new lives. The secluded 77-acre campus at the foot of the Angeles National Forest doesn’t feel like a homeless shelter. With rolling green hills, a koi pond and blooming gardens, it could moonlight as a retreat center for businesses and churches.

But Union Rescue Mission hasn't been immune to the economic crisis. At the very point when Los Angeles families need them the most, the non-profit has lost government funding and about $3 million in donations. And despite slashing their budgets, enduring multiple salary cuts and even layoffs, URM is serving more people than ever before. According to URM, "Sixty nine percent (69%) of families entering URM cite economic reasons, including job loss, eviction or foreclosure as the reason behind their homelessness." And since the city's latest unemployment rate is at 12.7%, the shelter is anticipating an influx of even more families.

As for Hope Gardens, Los Angeles County made the decision to cut off their nearly $100,000/month subsidy in December 2010, which leaves the non-profit scrambling to keep afloat. Here's how you can help keep Hope Gardens alive:

  • Organize a group from work, your faith community, or your neighborhood to do a service project at Hope Gardens.
  • Volunteer to be a tutor or mentor to one of the children at Hope Gardens.
  • Give gifts like soap, toiletries, laundry detergent, diapers, and other things that a family might need.
  • Donate with either a one-time gift or a recurring monthly transaction.
  • Take a tour of Hope Gardens.

For more information on how to donate or volunteer, call the Union Rescue Mission at (213) 316-2760.

Hope Gardens