May 17, 2018
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A TED Talk inspired a 16-year-old to start a nonprofit that employs the homeless in San Diego

A mayor's message about the 'dignity of work' was the catalyst, but it was a dogged determination to help his neighbors that got Wheels of Change off the ground

Kevin Barber stands behind some of the men and women who participate in his nonprofit Wheels of Change. Photo courtesy of Kevin Barber

Watching YouTube videos is mostly a throwaway pastime, but eight months ago, watching “There’s a Better Way,” a TED Talk by Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry, left an impression on me that I couldn’t shake. Berry spoke about a pioneering project his city created to give the homeless work and a place to sleep. At the end of the video, Berry asks, “So, who’s next?”

Albuquerque’s homeless plight mirrors that of my own city, San Diego. What’s more, the homelessness crisis here touches our family personally, as my mother is an ER doctor who tends to some of the more than 9,000 homeless individuals on a daily basis. I felt the need to do something. I began laying the foundation for what would eventually become Wheels of Change (WOC), San Diego’s version of the Albuquerque program.

Today, WOC is a nonprofit startup with a $230,000 annual budget that, after our pilot period ends, will eventually employ 200 homeless people monthly.

The program is simple. Several days a week, a van picks up interested homeless individuals and drives them to work, where they are assigned jobs such as cleaning up trash, clearing brush etc., for which they receive $11.50 an hour. At the end of the workday, Wheels of Change brings them to Alpha Project, a nonprofit that offers them shelter and/or social services.

Footwork before Wheels

Before launching WOC I dove into researching what it would take to set up such a program in San Diego. Among other things, that entailed emailing, calling and setting up meetings with Mayor Berry, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, his COO Kris Michelle, our homeless director Jonathan Ferrera, former city manager Jack McGrory, and city council member Scott Sherman. I also traveled to New Mexico to investigate their program, and researched nonprofits focused on homelessness.

I worked with private civic leaders raising an initial $80,000, and convinced Alpha Project to run the program. Finally, I had a logo designed, created a WOC website, established a GoFundMe site, secured an additional $120,000 funding from San Diego, purchased a van to transport the homeless to their job sites, and sparked a media campaign that resulted in CNN coverage and multiple news articles that gave our program high visibility.

I’ve learned from this experience that we can all give back to our communities, so long as we are willing to try.

With Mayor Faulconer present, on February 26 2018, Wheels of Change was launched in downtown San Diego. It became an immediate success with the homeless: 250 persons have been employed so far, with 150 on the waitlist. Already they have collected two tons of trash. Moving forward, we will soon expand the program to five days a week and are helping cities such as L.A., San Francisco, and Phoenix explore similar initiatives.

The stories coming from those employed by WOC are heartwarming and inspiring. Susan Graham was living on the streets and out of hope. A thwarted suicide attempt saved her life and she eventually ended up in our program. “Wheels of Change saved my life,” Graham said. “It’s a miracle. I am a miracle! Now I want to be an example to others.”

Rosemarie Rivera is another WOC employee. After a mere four hours of work, the $46 she earned allowed her to renew her bus pass and buy a new dress. “Now I have a bus pass for job searches and a new dress if I need to go to an interview,” she said.

Charles Berry shared on his first day working with WOC: “Not only was the day pleasant, but so were the attitudes and dispositions of the people in the community. Seeing their smiles of approval bolstered my self-confidence, and it warmed my heart. I soon found my head gradually lifting higher as I continued to beautify the area, where I used to pitch my tent every night since November 2017 … The money I earned was a bonus. I was able to replenish my hygiene products and have enough to pay my tithes this coming Easter Sunday! Thank you from the bottom of my heart … You’re causing me to have faith in humanity again!”

Give Back and Never Give Up

I’ve learned from this experience that we can all give back to our communities, so long as we are willing to try. If you have a good idea, be bold, establish clear goals, and take action. It also helps to surround yourself with smart people with experience who become a good team, contribute, and make things happen. And by doing something, you may be privileged to witness not only the struggle of others, but also their bravery and resilience.

Keep your end goal in sight and do not be deterred if people fail to return your calls or if they doubt you. Funding too may be an issue, but persevere and keep exploring all resources. As Bob McElroy, CEO of Alpha Project, told me: “I thought you would give up!” I didn’t and now we have a viable and sustainable nonprofit that is changing lives and doing good in the community.

Engage in life, go all-in, help those who are hurting … and be humble and grateful by what you find. So who’s next?

Kevin Barber

Kevin Barber attends The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, California, where he is just finishing his junior year. He plays varsity volleyball for Bishop’s, enjoys surfing, computer science, and is the founder of Wheels of Change.