Philanthropy: Project Kinship

Project Kinship offers support—and often a first chance—as alternatives to street life.
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

A two-story warehouse sits on Broadway in Santa Ana, tucked into a neighborhood that looks like something from a Dr. Seuss book. Bold, chunky townhomes painted in hues of rust, mustard, and pumpkin flank one side of the warehouse. Lanky palms and blooming magnolias frame the front. Cone-shaped pine trees creak and sway to the reverberations of the 5 Freeway that thunders away on the backside. The headquarters for Project Kinship are like a rustic, homey village plunked in the middle of a bustling city.

Project Kinship Community Celebration and Handball Tournament. Photograph Courtesy of Project Kinship

Project Kinship, a nonprofit founded in 2014 by Steven Kim and Mary Vu, works closely with Orange County schools, courts, health care agencies, and the surrounding community. Just like Los Angeles sibling Homeboy Industries, the group’s mission is “to provide support and training to lives impacted by incarceration, gangs, and violence through hope, healing, and transformation.” Everyone involved with Project Kinship has either been in the criminal system or negatively impacted by it. They share the experience and have a vested interest in being part of a solution—to heal a community they once harmed. 

Homeboy Industries founder Father Greg Boyle attributes difficulties for people ensnared in the system to a “lethal absence of hope.” Project Kinship announces its message immediately at the office: HOPE LIVES HERE is emblazoned on the back wall in enormous block font. Raymond Garcia mans the front desk, meticulously logging every visitor. Diminutive in stature, Garcia nonetheless exudes a quiet power. His eyes are a vibrant turquoise. It’s obvious he takes great pride in doing a job he isn’t paid for.

“I did 46 years in prison, and I turn 74 this year,” Garcia says. “I knew that sharing my experiences could give some insight, maybe even help the youngsters, but I didn’t know where to go.” Upon his release, Garcia recalls that he wasn’t doing anything he found useful. He wanted to give back to a community he had taken from. Garcia’s barber told him about Project Kinship. Within a few days, he went to his first meeting. “I wasn’t gonna share, just listen. Then the youngsters asked me, ‘What’s your story?’ I told them, and I haven’t left since,” he says. “PK gave me a voice, a home, and a purpose. I love them for it.”

As Garcia tells his story, a young, disheveled man meekly opens the front door. His T-shirt is on inside out; he carries only a road-weary backpack. “I heard I could maybe get some food up here,” he says, with eyes downcast. “We don’t got much, but lemme see what I can do,” Garcia says.

He returns with chips, a steaming Cup Noodles, and a bottle of water. Hope does indeed live here. 

Project Kinship Staff supporting school district graduation ceremonies. Photograph Courtesy of Project Kinship

Orange County-raised Steven Kim, a self-professed former “geeky Asian kid with a bowl cut,” experienced street life’s lure early and found himself tangled in the web of drugs and incarceration. By 1999, Kim realized the futility of the life he was leading and began his journey of recovery.

“I will never forget my last memory of being incarcerated,” Kim says. “I sat on a metal stool, holding a plastic phone—a glass wall separating me from my baby daughter.” At that moment, the weight of his shame felt insurmountable, but it became his unrelenting catalyst for change. 

Kim began by educating himself in areas where he believed he could make a difference. He received a bachelor’s degree in criminology, law, and society from UC Irvine and a master’s in social work from USC. It was at UC Irvine that he first heard Boyle speak about dedicating your life to the community you’re from. From that point on, the two formed an unbreakable bond. A colleague at USC, Mary Vu, worked alongside Kim for the first five years, constructing the base of Project Kinship. The precepts of the fledgling foundation that Kim and Vu first developed are integrated into what the group is today.

How can we embrace these people, help them discover their value, and instill some hope for a future?
Steven Kim

Many people are first exposed to Project Kinship through the table outside the Intake and Release Center at the Orange County Jail. The group’s staff members are there weekdays from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. to provide information on an array of reentry services. If there are addiction problems, the group can locate a detox, rehab, or a sober-living facility. It can assist with mental health resources, California IDs, a bus pass, and more. Whatever the need is, if the staff members can’t fulfill it, they can guide the person to the right place. Most importantly, they meet people where they are, with no judgment or expectations. Availability is key—if someone isn’t ready today, he or she might be tomorrow.

Kim has studied trauma and its effects extensively, and now his focus is on creating and implementing various forms of healing. He and the staff seek to knit together community members, behavioral health experts, and those who have experienced gangs, street life, or incarceration.

“You always hear about giving people a second chance,” Kim says. “But here, for some, we’re offering a first chance. Many people come through our doors multiply marginalized—a parent is on drugs or in prison, there’s poverty, etc. They enter this world feeling less-than and unimportant. How can we embrace these people, help them discover their value, and instill some hope for a future?”

A Project Kinship Staff Member provides youth mentorship. Photograph Courtesy of Project Kinship

There are no separate, enclosed offices at the headquarters. The walls are glass. Everyone can see everyone doing everything. A long row of gigantic cardboard boxes lines a partition. On each box, there is a number scribbled in marker. “Donated prom dresses,” Kim says. He chuckles and points out that the boxes stretch the length of the wall, then around the corner as well. Anyone who wants to go to prom will not be denied access due to lack of proper attire. 

In addition to the resources Project Kinship offers, Kim stresses the importance of the welcome. “We roll out the red carpet for whoever walks through our doors,” he says, laughing. Then he adds, “Because people need to know their pain is understood. That no matter what you’ve been through, we got you. And as we help and serve others, we, in turn, are touched and healed back.”

 

If Kim is the heart and soul of Project Kinship, Director of Programs Madeline Rodriguez is the one who keeps that beat fast and steady. She describes herself as “just a brown girl, born in East L.A. with a big ol’ red heart.”

Rodriguez believes her past guided her toward community work, especially in the mental health area. “Like many people … I had traumatic childhood experiences,” she says. “But culturally, and as a Latina female, there is a huge stigma in talking about these things, so we just didn’t.” Rather than turning to the streets, as some friends and family members did, Rodriguez focused on her faith and education.

Steven Kim and Madeline Rodriguez. Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Healing from trauma and public safety are the themes at Project Kinship. One of Rodriguez’s main roles is to be a representative in courtrooms, both juvenile and adult, and talk about what rehabilitation and reentry looks like. The courts, probation services, the participant, and Rodriguez collaborate to provide wraparound services. The passion she feels for her job is obvious, but when speaking about specific details her voice drops and her gaze is steady. 

“If a juvenile is facing many years, we get together with the courts, using a trauma-informed approach, to create an alternative plan.” They partner with community colleges for education and work support. If mental health or rehab resources are needed, they provide that as well. “Then we continue to all meet as a team to track progress, understand their stories, and then help heal the existing narrative so we can write something different for them, for us.”   

The essential part being developed here is the joining together and participation of everyone involved. “Steve Kim has always been tireless in his acts of service,” says Aquil Basheer, a community-based public safety specialist and author who has a long-standing personal and working relationship with Kim and the group. “He truly meets the needs of the people through service first, then leadership second. As an organization, PK sets the standards of what other groups, trying to achieve similar goals, should measure themselves by.”

Father Greg Boyle spoke at Project Kinship’s recent OC Public Safety and Re-entry Conference. Arms wide open, with a subdued intensity, he shares about standing at the margins and seeing people. He speaks of imagining a circle of compassion where no one stands outside that circle and obliterating the notion of “us” and “them.” In his decades at Homeboy Industries, Boyle has witnessed firsthand that when systems change, people change, and people change when they are cherished. After a hush in the audience, more than 450 people stand up, clapping and hooting uproariously. Here, there is kinship.