Human Services

North Valley Caring Services: For this nonprofit, community comes first

October 13, 2021
NVCS employee Alycia Monroy, wearing mask and sunglasses, serves food boxes from behind a picnic table.
NVCS staff member Alycia Monroy distributing boxes of food to community members.

The largest single-site food distribution center in LA's San Fernando Valley, North Valley Caring Services (NVCS) offers multi-pronged interventions to tackle homelessness, poverty, and food insecurity. NVCS was initially connected to NFF through the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s (LAHSA) Home for Good capacity building program for broad financial management support. NFF has worked with NVCS over the last year to strengthen their financial management capacity so they can continue to meet the evolving needs of North Valley communities. 

When COVID-19 hit, demand for NVCS’ services skyrocketed – and the organization needed to quickly expand and formalize its infrastructure in order to meet it. NFF staff members Josh Twisselman and Will McAneny recently sat down with Manny Flores, Alycia Monroy, and Melissa Jaivin from NVCS to talk about the unique ways that NVCS responds to community needs – especially during a once-in-a-generation pandemic. This interview has been condensed from its original form.  

Josh: Can you tell us about NVCS and the work you do? 

Manny: NVCS is really a product of necessity for a community that is underserved. Very few resources have historically been available for this particular community, and so it’s been leveraging what we do have – which is people, the desire to help one another, and the willingness to really look for resources where maybe others have not. We have cultivated new relationships in non-traditional ways. 

It was really evident from day one that our neighborhood is food insecure. We quickly learned that there is nowhere really to appeal to in regard to starting a food pantry or food distribution. So, you try to leverage relationships with people you know in the neighborhood. You walk directly into the store and convince them to maybe give you some of the food, and usually what's left in those spaces is what other agencies do not want, or times and dates where no one wants to pick up. But we were willing to do that. 

[With other agencies] there’s usually a corporate sense to it. There’s a commercial sense to it, that you’re being given food by the government. You’re being given food from some event. There’s a photo op. For us, we cultivate the relationships. We went and got the food. We brought it here. We unloaded. We give it out. It’s really like neighbors serving neighbors. So, it’s received in a much different way. 

Alycia: I just wanted to add – with the pandemic, we never stopped serving. We changed operations in some ways, but we started serving a lot more. Because, if we didn’t, our community wouldn’t have been served. There would have been a lot of people suffering so much more. But instead, we figured something out.  We brought food security [to] the homeless, breakfasts and showers. If we didn’t stay open, where were these people going to go? We remained open, just changed some things [to] to go and we continued to serve. 

Will: You both talked a lot about serving the community and neighbors. How are you thinking about community as you approach your work? 

Manny: I think where it’s most evident for us is in our unhoused programming. We see people being marginalized and separated from community. So, community for us is anybody that would want to interact with us...whether it’s someone who is working here, whether it’s someone who donates, you become part of our community.  

I think it is not so much the work that we are doing, but it’s the way that we are doing it. It’s just as important for us to serve someone as it is for us to get to know each other, to value each other, and to make sure that we remove as many labels as possible; staff, volunteers. We don’t really differentiate between the people we serve and those who are serving. 

Alycia: When we had our drive through pantry – just looking at the line of the people that loaded the boxes into the cars, we had refugees, board members, people from the Neighborhood Council, Council District Representatives, people that were experiencing homelessness, people that were previously experiencing homelessness, people that were in Safe Parking, LAPD, volunteers from the neighborhood, and volunteers from Los Angeles. Everyone came together and they continued to show up every week to support our neighbors.    

Boxes of fruit, eggs, pie, drinks, and other food
Boxes of food that NVCS distributed to people across the North Valley

Josh: Alycia, you mentioned that the needs didn’t stop during the pandemic but instead increased. You all stepped up to meet that. Do you have any stories about what it was like to adjust to the pandemic – and what that looked like for the organization and the community that you are serving?

Melissa: Our walk-through food pantry, pre-pandemic, was serving 400 families. On March 19th, it was converted to a drive-through. Volunteers were there. People showed up to help make it happen despite the uncertainty and threat of COVID. And within a month we were serving 4,000 families a week.

Alycia: I think that one of the programs that took the most drastic change was our Youth program, which in years past was just an after-school program. We had to cancel that program for a couple of weeks. Then, parents started coming to us saying that distance learning was not working for them – they were really struggling. 

That’s when we opened up our NVCS classroom program, with four classrooms onsite and had a staff member and a volunteer in each classroom. We had the kids bring their laptops. We had loaner technology if they did not have it. We gave them headphones. We made sure they stayed in their classes and up to date with their homework, and also acted as a liaison with the school and the parents. A lot of the kids did a lot better in our NVCS classroom showing up every day and getting one-on-one than they did at school pre-pandemic.  

Will: You mentioned that one of the things you appreciated about working at NVCS during this time was how fluid and responsive the organization was able to be. Do you have a sense of why that is?

Alycia: A lot of the staff here started off as volunteers and then got into a position. I feel like a lot of us have this huge heart for NVCS and the community.

Manny: I think another piece of that was that the community was involved in the growth we had prior to the pandemic. They experienced it. They saw it. They felt like they were stakeholders to the work that we do. I think we all figured out that if we don’t show up then no one will. And so, we feel like we owed it to each other to show up. We demonstrated that there’s something stronger than programs and systems – and that is relationships, true relationships.

These are not relationships between a volunteer coordinator and a volunteer. This is a relationship between Sylvia and Rosario. They’re very strong bonds that are created that when needed you can really depend on people to do the right things.

NVCS employee Manny Flores stands next to a pickup truck speaking to a man facing away from the camera
Manny Flores on a food delivery run

Will: What has been so successful about your Homeless Outreach and Motel Outreach? What are you doing differently? 

Manny: One of the main things we do is that we go out at a time that makes sense and not business hours. Because a lot of times, especially in the heat right now, our homeless friends are away from their tents during business hours.

I think the meals that we give them says a lot because we have always tried to give them the best possible meal. If we have the ability to take out steak and meatloaf and really hearty food, we’re doing that. For somebody who is not so far removed from social services, I interpret that a certain way. I interpret it that you feel I am important enough that you dedicated this food. You dedicated your time. You came to see me when most others would not. I see that you are taking a chance.

When you’re walking out of the door, you’ve had a long day, you’re going to your car, and there’s somebody who’s hungry and it’s your choice to either pull over and give them something to eat or get to your car and go home early. We’re pretty honest about it, like, “I wanted to just get home. I was so tired Manny. I didn’t want to do it, but I did it.” It’s a commitment to just serve others. 

Josh: We've talked about some of the ways that the nonprofit system is set up and some of the ways that it is not necessarily able to serve people in the right ways – because of the way the funding is set up, the restrictions that it places on things, and the way that it means you can’t meet people where they are. I’m wondering if you had something that you would want funders to hear about how they could better support NVCS and ways that it would make your jobs easier. 

Manny: I mean the most obvious thing that comes to my mind is the fact that if you haven’t been on our site, it be hard for us to explain to you that we do it from a church campus. Everything is makeshift. One of the things that we are really targeting in regard to an appeal to our investors is imagining a site that fits the services that we do that could all be done in one singular place.

Alycia: I would say funding that goes towards just general and operating expenses so that when there is a need, we can just fulfill it. I would hope that people believe in NVCS enough that you’re supporting anything that NVCS creates.

Today, NFF is continuing to work with NVCS as they build out their own more robust, formalized financial planning processes. To learn more about the advisory services NFF offers to nonprofits like NVCS, visit our Consulting page.

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