Raising dough

With birthday parties and challah, Worthy of Love aids L.A.’s unhoused population

Mary Davis started the group to give kids experiencing homelessness a chance to have fun, but is now looking to help families break the poverty cycle

At Our Big Kitchen-Los Angeles (OBKLA), children and their parents prepared, cooked and packed close to 300 meals — including mini-challahs shaped into hearts — to be distributed to those in need, while also taking an occasional dance break, as part of a program organized earlier this year by the area nonprofit Worthy of Love.

The kids and adults were a mixed group; some are experiencing homelessness and living in shelters, while others were there as part of “Little Mensches,” a kids’ community service program run by L.A.’s IKAR Jewish community. But that distinction faded into the background as they cooked and danced together to the music supplied by a DJ.

“You could not tell who was from the shelter and who was from IKAR. I love that and that was my dream, having everybody come together,” Mary “Mandie” Davis, founder of Worthy of Love, told eJewishPhilanthropy

Since it began 10 years ago, Worthy of Love has put on parties and events for over 10,000 children experiencing homelessness and their families. It is now looking to expand to not only offer its participants a one-time experience but also to help lift them out of poverty permanently.

“When you close your eyes and you say ‘homeless,’ I think of a man on the street,” Davis said. “But now that I’ve done this work for 10 years, I don’t just see a man, I see a mom and three kids whose dad died and they have nowhere to go. Or their mom has cancer,” she said, recounting a few of the stories of people, especially the children, who are homeless in L.A.. 

According to the 2022 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), 69,144 people in L.A. County are experiencing homelessness, about 70% (48,548) of them are unsheltered, meaning they live in public spaces like cars, parks, sidewalks and abandoned buildings. (The rest may not have permanent homes but live in shelters or temporarily with friends.)

Davis started WoL in 2013 with then-boyfriend (now-husband) Ari Kadin when she was both volunteering in the Skid Row area of downtown Los Angeles and in the process of converting to Judaism. She said she felt a calling to braid those two life experiences together, to represent Judaism while helping out in shelters and on the street. 

Her plan was to throw monthly birthday parties for unhoused children who were living on Skid Row. At the events, kids with birthdays in the same month received gifts, cake, a dance party and activities with themes ranging from science to superheroes.

Actor and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik, a WoL board member and one of its 2,400 volunteers, donned a sloth mascot’s costume at last August’s party, and circulated among the kids, watching as their faces lit up with joy, she told eJP.

“The parties are an experience many of them will never [otherwise] get to have, to be in that kind of environment, with a mascot that’s there to hug them and high-five them, and it was incredible to be able to do that somewhat anonymously,” said Bialik, whose own children regularly accompany her to WoL parties.

Avram Mandell, founding executive director of Tzedek America, who works regularly with Los Angeles’s homeless population, said these kinds of parties give children “a reality break from the day-to-day stresses of living in poverty and sends a message from the larger community that they’re not forgotten.”

In 2022, Davis expanded WoL, adding another program, Mama’s Challahs, to enable families experiencing homelessness to bake bread together, and leave with a loaf of fresh bread and a recipe booklet, “to bake the world a better place,” as Davis put it. 

So far, 14 Mama’s Challahs sessions have taken place across three greater L.A. locations — OBKLA, Hope Gardens in Sylmar and Salvation Army in Westwood. 

After the death of her sister from COVID-19, Davis took up baking as a form of therapy, perfecting her challah recipe in the process. When someone suggested she sell the challah, she realized it was an opportunity for the women in poverty to learn baking skills and to earn money. One Mama’s Challahs participant, for example, had been a baker before her husband was murdered in gang violence; she had turned to meth and lost her daughter to foster care, but is now rehabilitated and hoping to reunite with her daughter. Davis hired her to make the birthday treats for Worthy of Love’s December party. 

Many of the women who attend her events “just need an opportunity,” Davis said. “They need a second chance.”

The next goal is to open a bricks-and-mortar bakery as a social enterprise where Davis can hire women who live in poverty and give them the opportunity to make their own livelihood. Davis said she is now working on raising the funds needed to both rent a suitable location and hire the necessary personnel, including a head baker.

“The main focus is to help mamas with an opportunity,” she said, before indulging in a few bread-related puns. “We all knead love, together we rise,” she said, adding that selling fresh-made bread and other baked goods will “help with our cash flow to hire more mamas, so they can have an opportunity to become ‘breadwinners.’” 

A social enterprise like Mama’s Challahs bakery can provide access to employment and training for its clients, which strengthens a resume that may otherwise reveal periods of unemployment, while also providing revenue to the nonprofit, Mandell said. 

At a future job interview, the women employed by Mama’s Challahs bakery “will be asked, ‘What job experience do you have?’ and ‘Where was the last place you worked?’ Now they can say they worked at a bakery, which is a big deal in terms of coming closer to financial independence… It’s very hard to break out of cycles [of poverty and homelessness],” Mandell added, “so creating an environment that brings income but also job skills to people who are trying to break this cycle is extremely valuable.”

However, Mandell noted that employment is not a panacea for poverty and homelessness. “Having a secure job doesn’t mean you have a home,” he said.

Whether it’s birthday-partying at a shelter, challah baking or an off-site gathering such as March 2023’s WoL birthday party at L.A.’s Petersen Automotive Museum, Worthy of Love Productions (WOLP) — WoL’s newly founded social enterprise arm — handles party logistics and hires vendors, some of whom may be residents of the shelter. 

Most of WoL’s personnel requirements for its events are filled by its network of 2,400 volunteers who help out by prepping ingredients, washing dishes, setting up party favors and distributing a WoL branded T-shirt – a particularly beloved gift that the birthday kids receive, often not being used to getting new clothes.

“They’re so obsessed with the shirts because it’s something new, and it says ‘I’m worthy of love’ on it,” Davis said, adding that it’s the largest expense, “but we’re clothing the homeless.” 

Actions like these are “about deepening the experience and ensuring the kids, the families, and the caregivers know they are worth everything,” said Anne Hromadka Greenwald, of AMH Advisory, who consulted with the organization on its strategic plan. “Creating and valuing moments of joy is an act of healing, tikkun, that centers a response to unhoused families rooted in dignity and love,” she added.

Since the organization’s founding, WoL parties have reached more than 10,000 kids and their families in four shelters across L.A. County — Angela’s House in Compton; Westwood Village in Westwood; Hope Gardens in Sylmar and the Downtown Women’s Shelter — and Santa Maria Hostel in Houston, which provides addiction recovery, housing, prevention and intervention programs for women who are pregnant or parenting. 

Trying to meet growing community needs, the organization has set fundraising targets of $125,600 in individual donations, $350,000 from grants and foundations and $400,000 from corporate sponsorships. Davis told eJP that the organization has raised 15% of their goal this year, and secured a pledge for over $100,000 in 2023 from Enterprise Holdings Foundation — which is contributing a 50% match on their employee contributions —as part of the rental car company’s “Stronger Together” campaign.

This is in addition to the $40,000 of funding that currently comes through its “birthday club subscriptions,” in which donors sponsor a child’s attendance at one of WoL’s monthly parties.

“I do personally see Worthy of Love through a deeply Jewish context,” said Hromadka Greenwald. The process of giving work to women who need it, she added, has its roots in the rungs of the ladder of tzedakah (righteous behavior) as articulated by Maimonides, particularly “the idea that one of the greatest things you could do is actually give someone a job, and not just a job, but a skill set that they can then use way beyond you.”