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on wheels

By: Ken Brusic

As seen in the Orange County Register - Front Page

December 11, 2016

Orange County Register (Front Page) 

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Wednesday night homeless gathering

The homeless went to the gathering seeking food. The people they met also offered hope, love and a way out. All they had to do was choose.

Some would. Most would not.


But the gifts were not wasted. The people who served also turned out to be people who were changed.


Charity on Wheels, a small Orange County nonprofit established three years ago to help the homeless, is a contradiction in terms. There are no wheels though it started out that way. And it’s not so much a charity as an organization that attempts to build strong relationships.


Its main goal is to get the homeless off the street and onto a path of productive life. It is a long, agonizing, frustrating process.

The group was started by Zach Southall, a Juilliard-hopeful classical guitarist turned grind-core band member (think heavy metal on steroids) turned mortgage financing company president turned marketing CEO. Throw in husband, father of four, director of worship arts at Salem Lutheran Church in Orange, a solemn pact with God and you can begin to understand his almost manic
drive to help what he calls his homeless brothers and sisters.


Zach Southall, Founder of Charity on Wheels

You can come close to living your life in Orange County without being affected by the homeless. But once you open your eyes and look closely, you will see a pervasive, deeply-rooted problem.


The county commissioned 2-1-1OC to conduct a count. It’s really more a snapshot survey of a point in time, but the 2015 annual estimate of homeless men, women and children was 15,291. Start looking and you will see encampments all along and in the Santa Ana riverbed, clearly visible from the I-5 or roads like Chapman Avenue where it passes over the river.


Or stroll through La Palma Park in Anaheim to see clusters of people spread across the grass, their possessions scattered about them. This is the population Charity on Wheels attempts to help.

Homeless camps in La Palma Park in Anaheim and Civic Center in Santa Ana

“I can’t do it for you,” Zach Southall, 43, says. “I can’t carry you all the way there. But if you start walking a little bit, I will get the wheelbarrow and scoop you up, and we’ll go fast.”


Zach’s journey to build his organization in many ways parallels that of the homeless.


He was fascinated by classical guitar, inspired by a talented musician mentor. He started playing when he was 10 or 11. He grew up in an upper middle class family. Then his parents divorced.


“I went from being very affluent to very poor in the blink of an eye,” he said. A foreshadowing of what also happened in his adult life.


He was living in an apartment with his mom and sharing a room with his sister. His mother had to work and that meant he had a lot of time to himself, he said.


“You just wind up falling in with the wrong people. I had a lot of anger with them breaking up. It led to a lot of trouble.”

It also led to a fascination with eardrum-shattering punk band music. He was drawn to the raw anger and aggression. He was one of the founding members of the band, Phobia. Its sound is a hybrid of punk and heavy metal with a social message — death metal or grind core to its followers. The band is still touring.

Zach's former band mate Shane Mclachlan - Zach's former band Phobia

Zach went another direction prompted by, what else, a girl. Michelle, now 43, is his wife of 16 years.


He met her and fell in love. “This is the girl I want to marry,” he said to himself. “She is brilliant and beautiful. She’s never going to marry a loser musician.”


He played two more shows, hung up his guitar and didn’t play again for years.


He started learning finance and helped build a business. Given his drive and personality, things clicked and he was wildly successful. He was in the mortgage business, and business was booming. He started acquiring: a bigger share of his company’s business — leveraging himself and buying out shareholders — a big house, fancy cars, even a boat.


Then the housing market bubble exploded and took his business with it.


“We wound up losing everything,” he said. “We lost our money, our house, our cars — everything. It was very humbling.”


Looking back, he sees things differently. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Losing everything. It saved my life.”


He looks at a picture of himself taken at the time. “I looked haggard, gray. I was fat. My priorities were all messed up.”


No wonder he got sick. He was diagnosed with a tumor on his vocal chords. “I couldn’t speak, I lost 40 or 50 pounds. They thought I was going to die.”


A course of drugs cured him. But when he returned home, he found an eviction notice posted on his door. His family had to get out of the big house.


He remembers sitting on the porch, wrapped in a blanket, feeling alone and abandoned. “I put my faith into stuff — money, power — and God was slowly taking these things away. I was crying and screaming and kicking the whole way.”


Michelle stuck by him through these Job-like travails. She had convinced him to go back to church. Both were raised Catholic, but she yearned for a more personal faith. They joined Salem Lutheran Church in Orange.


So there was Zach sitting on that porch in tears. The moving trucks coming, and no one there to help. Then the church shows up. “All these people came,” he said. They helped the family move. “Then they were taking my kids to school, bringing dinner every night.”


That’s when Zach made his covenant with God. “I said, ‘OK, I’m your guy. You totally helped me out here. Wherever you send me, I’ll go.’” He tears up at the memory. ‘I’ll never say no. Whatever you tell me, I’ll do it.’”


He started doing more at church. He thought he was doing good, living up to his end of the bargain. “You’re welcome, God.”


It wasn’t enough.


“Then He put this thought in my head that I needed to go out and take care of his children. Homeless, hungry, lost people. Go find them. Take care of them. I thought that was weird. I don’t think I was all in, even then.”


But off he went. That Saturday he told Michelle that he was going to take his sons, buy some stuff and go feed the homeless.


He did that for several weeks. It made him feel good, but after a while he started feeling like he wasn’t having an impact.


He was also stepping up helping with worship services at church. Michelle had volunteered him, knowing his talent for singing and playing guitar. He was good but wanted to be better so he started visiting other churches to fill in and find out about their music programs.


It was during one of these visits that he heard about Mickey Jordan of the Salvation Army. Mickey had started a homeless program but was having trouble with turnout.


“I got you covered,” Zach remembers telling Mickey when they met. “I will bring you volunteers. I will bring you all the food. I will pay for all the shower passes. And I’ll do the worship every week.”


A partnership was born.


Mickey Jordan, 33, is a wiry, intense man who thinks deeply about his religion and homeless ministry. He began about 10 years ago by volunteering to travel to the Ukraine for the Rock Harbor Church. He went there to work with street children, to feed and clothe them.

Mickey Jordan and Michelle Southall - Mickey preaching at the Gathering

This was a place, he said, where there was no government money to help children on the street. “Being homeless meant you had nothing,” he said. “You die on the street.”


But similar to Zach’s experience years later and half a world away, Mickey felt like he was treating symptoms rather than the root cause. Someone told him about a successful program in Romania. Mickey went to investigate.


It was there that he discovered the foundation that would lead to dramatic changes in his Ukraine program and ultimately to success for Charity on Wheels. Mickey spent four years in the Ukraine and then brought back the process he later shared with Zach.


It is simple and almost self evident. It is based on trust, relationships and community.


“No one cares what you know,” Mickey said, “unless they know you care.”


The Mickey-Zach collaboration works this way: You recruit and train willing, caring volunteers. You do outreach within the homeless community, talking and listening. You invite them to a gathering with the promise of food and song. You serve first-rate meals, then you sit down, eat and talk with them. You listen more than you talk. You invite them back again next week. You repeat the cycle, deepening the relationship. You finally find the right moment and instead of going back to the park, you help find them a job, a place to stay. You keep on doing this until more people recover their lives.


You also prepare yourself for frustration and failure. In battling the intractable homelessness trifecta of causes — addiction, mental health and joblessness — people often take steps forward only to stumble and retreat.


It’s not a one-way street.


“I believe in what’s called libertarian free will,” says Mickey, sounding like a college professor, a goal he’s working toward. “We are free to choose.


“The only reason you are homeless is that you are choosing to be homeless. This is very, very, very hard for people who are new to this ministry. This goes against the victim mentality that a lot of people buy into.”


To help the homeless make the choice to change, “People need to be acknowledged,” he said. “We need community. We need to be loved. We need to be known.”


Mickey tells this anecdote about a recent encounter at the riverbed. He was talking to a homeless man who told him, “I have Christian guys coming out here giving batteries for our radios. Last week I got a tent and a sleeping bag. I actually sold the sleeping bag. I have more stuff than I could ever dream of.


“You know what happens every day though,” the homeless man continued, “people walk by me like I’m not even here. A lot of these religious folks, they give me stuff from the window of a car and drive away. You are one of the only groups who are just sitting down and talking to us.”


Could it be that simple? It is, at least for the two to four people Charity on Wheels and the Salvation Army collaboration say they get off the street each month.


Ed Carman, 61, lived in La Palma Park and then in his car for months.


“This guy,” Ed said pointing at Zach, “helped me find a place to stay, fed me, helped me to make money. Helped me get on my feet. Sometimes people need that.


“It would be just like if I’m on the side of the freeway with my car’s hood up, and I’m waving my battery cables and everybody’s passing. These brothers,” he said, referring to Charity on Wheels, “came by and gave me a boost and got me back on the road. They had the grace of God in them and the other people didn’t. That’s the difference.”

Ed Carman and Zach Southall

Madeline Leon also made the breakthrough: “I had no home. My son hated me and was not talking to me.” She was at one of the gatherings to give thanks to Charity on Wheels and the Salvation Army for reconnecting her with her faith and helping out. She and her son are now living together in their new home.


It is not just the homeless who are helped by the program. The volunteers benefit as well, arguably as much or more than the homeless.


Jaclyn Kivelin was a volunteer almost from the start three years ago until she left Orange County to get married. She lives with her husband, a Marine, in 29 Palms. She returns to the gatherings whenever she can.


Jaclyn has a sweet, true singing voice that harmonizes perfectly with Zach’s. It is rare to see her talking to the homeless without a smile on her face.


She knew Zach from Salem Lutheran. She was a teacher at Orange Lutheran High School. He kept telling her about the Wednesday night gatherings. She went once, loved it and kept coming back.


“I had been a part of other homeless organizations in the past,” Jaclyn said. “This one felt more genuine. It wasn’t just about feeding people and staying away from them or offering something and not getting involved in any way. It was about getting involved in people’s lives. Not giving what you wanted to give, but seeing what somebody else actually needed.”


“I think Zach has the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever met,” she said. “He wants to see people succeed and wants to do anything he possibly can. He shows that through his life.”


Jaclyn and her husband have a long-term goal of using what she learned from Zach and Charity on Wheels to start a similar organization on the East Coast where her husband’s family lives.


Listening. Caring. Building trust. Sustaining a relationship.

Jaclyn Kivelin - Singing at the Wednesday Gathering

Paul Moffitt, 48, is another volunteer who’s been with Charity on Wheels almost from the start. Zach talked him into coming though he didn’t want to. Once there, he, too, got hooked.


Paul’s parents fell on hard times when he was kid. They had no money for Christmas. Their church stepped in and helped. Paul never goes a Christmas without helping others.


But he has another reason for helping out at Charity on Wheels besides the sense of doing something good and worthwhile.


“It gives you a better understanding of how good you really have it even when times are really bad,” he said. “And I’ve gone through a lot of personal things in the last couple years with a divorce after 23 years of being married, having to go bankrupt, having to sell my house. You look back and say, ‘This is nothing compared to what these people are going through.’


“I borderline feel like it’s a selfish act. It more is a blessing to me than it is to them.”


At the gatherings, Paul does whatever needs to be done, setting up tables for the 50 to 60 people who come on Wednesdays, sitting and talking with people, helping, building relationships. And performing the Christian songs.


“That’s my happy place. Slinging loans pays the bills,” he says of his work. “My passion is singing. God’s there, delivering messages of hope.”

Paul Moffitt mentors Michael, whom he met at a Wednesday gathering. - Paul singing at the Wednesday Gathering

Like Jaclyn and many of the other volunteers, Paul is amazed at Zach’s love, devotion and dedication to the mission. He tells this story:


“I watched him one night when we had a clothes night, and a guy was sitting on a little concrete planter. His head was down, and Zach went over to him and said, ‘Hey man what’s going on?’ The guy said ‘I was hoping you had a pair of shoes because my shoes have holes in them.’


“Zach said, ‘What size are you looking for?’ The guy said 12 or 13 and Zach immediately takes his shoes off and gives them to the guy.


“That was the greatest thing I had ever seen in my life. I don’t know that I could have done that. Zach walked around in his socks the rest of the night. He played music in socks. He went home in his socks.


“He does this week in and week out, often on his own dime. To see him do that, I was totally in awe. That to me shows everything about Zach.”

Not quite everything. Zach has plans to do more. Now he leverages relationship rather than money.


Mickey has moved on to another role within the Salvation Army and has been replaced by Nesa Anozie, 28. She and Zach are working to make the Charity on Wheels/Salvation Army collaboration even stronger. She’s a compassionate, no-nonsense administrator who is proud to continue and strengthen the work.


The Salvation Army provides the meeting place and offers access to a wide array of social services. Nesa also employs a full time outreach coordinator, Gabriel Silva. Like many others, he also has a powerful story. Violence, gangs and 25 years in prison are part of his past. He knows despair and salvation. He’s not afraid to go out to talk and listen.

Gabriel Silva with Nesa Anozie - Gabriel and Zach

Gabriel, Zach, Paul, Michelle, Nesa and a dozen or more volunteers are in the Salvation Army Church hall in Anaheim every Wednesday night from 5 p.m. to 8:30. They rarely miss. They know people are counting on them. Zach’s mom, Kathleen, provides table centerpieces with candles and fresh flowers. Michelle’s brother, Rueben, is in the kitchen cooking because it’s less expensive to buy and prepare the food than to bring it in ready made. No pizza, soup or hotdogs for this group. Michelle wouldn’t allow it.


She plays a quieter but no less important role within the organization. She watches over their children, three boys and a girl, ages 16, 14, 12 and 8. She recently started a full time job plus she does all of the administration, bookkeeping and volunteer coordination for Charity on Wheels. She moves quietly throughout the evening making sure everything goes just right.

Michelle Southall, Co-Founder of Charity on Wheels and Volunteer Director

With the family, friendships and ongoing relationships, the hall feels more like a coffeehouse than a Salvation Army meeting room. Fifty or sixty homeless people are greeted and welcomed. Food is served. Everyone is free to leave whenever they choose. This is not a food-for-religion barter.


Out in the courtyard, Lauren Scholle, another volunteer, has a line of people waiting for a haircut. A long-time stylist, she stopped cutting hair professionally when her daughter was born. She is now using her gifts of easy conversation and her hair cutting skills to put people at ease and dramatically transform their appearance.

Lauren Scholle, Volunteer

Inside, Zach and others get ready to play and sing. The band consists of one or two guitars, a bass and a drummer.


There is talk, laughter. The volume grows as the evening wears on. Someone is chosen to offer a lesson or testimony. There is prayer. The organization passes out toiletries and shower passes that allow people to go to a Salvation Army facility to get cleaned up.


Then it’s time to go.


“Watch over our friends as they venture out into the darkness,” Zach says in prayer. Then he raises his head, smiles and says: “We love you all so much. Please come back.”

Zach praying during the Charity on Wheels debrief

The volunteers clean up the room. Stack the chairs, put away the tables and mop the floor. They form a circle and tell one another what they’ve heard. Who among the homeless has made progress, who has faltered and needs helps. Assignments go out to be followed up during the week.

Zach talks a little about his plans to start another gathering along the riverbed near the Chapman Avenue overpass. And another at the Friends Church in the Orange Circle. He wants this work to spread, grow and flourish. He wants others to benefit from what he has learned.


The group joins hands, prays, and they too go out into the darkness. For them an inner light guides the way.

Charity on Wheels Volunteers including Nathan Schmok, Allie Gorman, Brett Thiebolt, Tyler Le, and Devin Hornick

*Photos by Charity on Wheels volunteers and Miguel Vasconcellos 

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