The Challenge: The conditions for many migrant day laborers in the U.S. are unsafe and unrewarding.
The Solution: Laguna Friends in Need, improving the lives of migrant day laborers in Laguna Canyon, CA.
The Teen Hero Who’s Making This World A Better Place: Shira Alcouloumre, who grew up in Laguna Canyon and saw first-hand how these laborers were being treated. She was just 4 years old when her mother took Shira and her siblings to Santa Ana. Their mother had them use their own money to buy and deliver groceries to the homeless.
Shira and her older brother, Aaron, were inspired by that trip and determined to reach out to the community she met there. Laguna Friends in Need raises money and donations to improve working site conditions with much-needed amenities like a water fountain and a shade cover. The organization also provides meals, clothing, weekly English classes, medical care, and holiday presents for the workers and their families. Shira’s team has raised over $20,000 and made lasting friendships with the workers. She is currently working on building an on-site classroom and getting certified ESL teachers.
She is so grateful for the support and encouragement from the Helen Diller Family Foundation. Shira won a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award for her dedicated work.
We asked Shira a few questions about how Laguna Friends in Need came to be and where it’s going next:
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What is your favorite food?
Sushi (salmon lemon roll).
Your favorite song?
It’s always changing but “First Day of My Life” by Bright Eyes has always been a favorite.
Your favorite thing to do with free time?
Tell me about that day when your mom took you to Santa Ana and you were inspired…
When I was 4, I stubbornly refused to eat a peach for breakfast, so my mom decided to give me some perspective. She had me and my siblings take our piggy banks and she drove us to downtown Santa Ana to buy groceries and hand out food to the homeless. We stopped in a park and began handing out food. One man stood up and shouted, “Guys, look, they brought peaches!” I was shocked by the gratitude, and I’ve never forgotten it.
What’s been the hardest part of all your lobbying and rallying for support?
I’ve been working lately with a group that opposes development in the canyon and the Day Labor site. Currently that’s been my greatest challenge, trying to get a group of adults to take me seriously even though I’m 17. People often think I’m not able to accomplish the same amount, simply because of my age. I’m just as determined as any adult, so trying to portray that has always been difficult.
What’s been the biggest reward from this work?
Honestly, the excitement of the guys when I pull up on the site to teach English. Almost all of them know me well and they always anticipate our Saturday morning classes. The relationships and experiences I’ve gained from working with them has been the biggest reward.
My first day of teaching English I taught one of the workers “hard hat” and his gratitude caught me off guard because of how imperative that word was to him when it came to job safety. The workers are the nicest guys and just being able to give them a life long skill and help them integrate into society has been immensely rewarding.
Can you explain some of the red tape you’ve encountered and how you’ve charged through it?
Well, the group that I mentioned is called CANDO (Canyon Alliance Neighborhood Defense Organization) and I’ve faced some issues with them. With the Diller Teen Scholarship I hoped to build a classroom on the site, but this organization was the only thing stopping me. They oppose development and construction in Laguna Canyon, an already fairly urbanized area. Right now I’m planning a meeting within the next few weeks with them to compromise and hopefully turn our idea of a classroom into a reality.
If you could have lunch with anyone and tell her/him about Laguna Friends, who would it be?
I would love to meet Malala Yousafzai and talk to her about Laguna Friends in Need. She is so inspiring in her belief of the importance of education. The English classes are a huge part of our project and being able to talk to her about what I do would be incredible. Also, she’s so inspiring, just being able to talk to her would be an honor.
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Who’s your biggest hero?
My brother Aaron. He runs this organization with me from college and has been there since the beginning. He has put just as much effort into this as I have and has always remained humble. He spreads happiness to everyone he meets and always seeks adventure. He’s got his head in the clouds and his feet on the ground.
What’s next for you and Laguna Friends in Need?
Right now we are pushing for our classroom. We really want the building set up and classes to be held there regularly before I leave for college. I just set up a club at my school for Laguna Friends in Need with 63 members who I hope will keep our vision going.
Anything else you’d like to say about the Laguna Friends In Need or your Tikkun Olam award?
I am beyond grateful to have been a part of the Helen Diller Foundation and to meet the amazing kids who won alongside me. I was so inspired after my weekend with them and it gave me hope about the world, seeing the incredible things people my age are accomplishing. The Tikkun Olam award has granted me the gift to take all my visions and allow me to put them into reality. Also, my brother was a finalist in the acceptance process of the award, and I am so grateful that one of us got it to continue making Laguna Friends in Need a success.
This post is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit www.dillerteenawards.org