Golden Heart Awards Gala 2016
The Midnight Mission has been helping homeless people in Los Angeles turn their lives around for over 100 years. Recently I was very fortunate to attend their annual donor gala, The Golden Heart Awards, in Beverly Hills.
This year’s recipients were 1) the most prolific comedy TV producer working today, Chuck Lorre, and 2) Midnight Mission President and CEO Larry Adamson, who is stepping down on this occasion after a storied tenure at the organization. Also in attendance was Kathy Bates (my all-time favorite big-screen momma from The Water Boy), the hilarious Bill Gardell (of Mike & Molly) and the legendary Dick Van Dyke.
After having a drink with my good friend Adrian Fulle of Variety Magazine (now THAT’S a name drop), perusing the mostly-way-too-expensive-for-this-guy silent auction, and talking to some friends, I parked my tuckus at my assigned table toward the back end of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel’s main ballroom. Before the speeches, the steak and wine started, over an amazing apple walnut salad (I had three portions), I found myself fifth wheeling with two couples whom I’d never met before. One was Charley Koontz, an actor who you might recognize from CSI or Community, who was with his girlfriend, and the other was Dr. Ronald Koretz, a Midnight Mission board member who was with his appropriately-named wife, Grace.
When Ron asked me about my involvement with the Midnight Mission, I said I volunteer my skills as a writer and blogger to help spread the word of the Mission online. Ron tilted his head like an inquisitive pug and started to describe photos from the Mission that he’d seen online a few months ago.
He described the photos as “very powerful, shedding a new light on the Mission,” and “showing a different perspective.” We soon realized that he was referring to my story about my first impression of the Mission.
“The content of those photos, remarkable,” he said.
Why thank you, Ron! You’re not too bad yourself 😉
Before the night was over, Ron ran up to me, interrupted a conversation I was having with Nick from Norman’s Rare Guitars (woot! woot! Topanga!), shook my hand and said, “I wanted to make sure we stay in touch. You’re a talented writer. Thanks for everything.”
“I already gave my card to your wife,” I winked.
“Perfect!” he winked back, and then jetted off to the parking lot, like my 10-year-old self used to run out to the car when my dentist whipped out his needle and said “say ahh.” I said “Ahh!” alright.
I felt EXTREMELY validated as a writer and photographer in that moment. One of LA’s most prolific doctors said he liked my work. “Woohoo! Tonight is going great!” I thought.
After the salad, the filet mignon was served and the speeches began. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, who incidentally follows me EVERYWHERE :), gave a speech about his first time volunteering at the Mission, when he was just 14 years old. He helped a young girl who had moved to LA to become a dancer, like her idol, Michael Jackson, but had fallen on hard times. Garcetti helped move her into affordable housing, where she hung an MJ poster on her wall.
Was it this poster?
One can only hope.
Garcetti also spoke of a man of similar age whom he helped find affordable housing:
“He grew up in the San Fernando Valley at the same time as me. Here he was, homeless with his daughter for six years in the streets as a single father; he helped his daughter get through the tough months and years, even with her sickle-cell anemia,” Garcetti said. “Well, she grew up and now she attends Santa Monica College, and wants to transfer to Berkeley. When we met again recently I was so impressed by her that I offered her an internship in my office. I don’t know where she’d be without the true angels of LA, the Midnight Mission.”
Another speaker who served up memorable remarks that night was David Noreaga, who gave his first-hand account of what it was like to go from being homeless on the street to supporting himself thanks to the Midnight Mission.
I was able to record a few lines of David’s speech. I strongly urge you to read it in full:
“Good evening, every one. My name is David Noreaga. I am an assistant volunteer coordinator at the Midnight Mission. Thank you, every one that is here tonight. Thanks to everyone for giving back to the Skid Row community. It means a lot to us.
“I grew up in the streets of Santa Ana in a gang-infested, drug-infested neighborhood. My parents were married for 63 years. They had already lost two of my brothers and a sister at a very young age, so they were very overprotective of me. Because of that, they put me in Catholic school. They wouldn’t even let me play with the neighbors, or play sports. But because English was my second language, I was bullied in school, and I was labeled a wetback.
“I had a hard time with school. I grew up with a lot of anger. A lot of fear. I was an attention seeker and I believe that I had ADD at that time but they still didn’t have a diagnosis back then.
“But I learned and I became the second smartest kid in my class. But it was no use because at the age of 13 I was already experimenting with alcohol and marijuana. The whole time I didn’t know that inside of me I had a disease called alcoholism.
“At the age of 14 I was already an active gang member.
“At the age of 16 I was already a father. My son is 33 years old. And his memories of me when he was a child is when his mom was taking him to school, they would literally walk over my body cause my friends would drop me off at the house black out drunk or on drugs.
“By the age of 17, I was a nightly drug user. I’ve had three heroin overdoses, three cocaine overdoses, and I’ve had seizures on meth. Because of the way I was doing drugs, I was committing crimes. And I wasn’t good at it. I got caught. You know, I spent my time in jail, prison, all that. I’ve been through over 20 different programs – Christian living, 12-step programs, you name it. Rehabs. None of that ever helped. And I’m not bashing them or nothing…
“I guess I just hadn’t suffered enough.
“I’ve been married twice. I have four kids. I have five grand-boys. I’ve lost a lot through my addictions to alcohol and drugs. I’ve given away cars, I’ve given away relationships…
“I’ve given away a lot.
“So my last relapse, it progressed so much that I was homeless for nine months. I’m that man that you would see out on the streets, that pushes a grocery cart with trash in it. I’m that man that you see out there, in the street… [chokes up… audience claps]
“I’m that man out there you see in the street who talks to himself not because I’m schizophrenic, but because I’m under heavy psychosis due to medication. I’m that guy that you would see out there in a trash dumpster digging for food, or anything of value that I could sell. Or that guy that waits for you outside of 7 Eleven, lying to you the whole time saying that it’s not for drugs or alcohol.
“See, I was afraid to commit crimes because I had become a two-striker. So I went to the lowest forms there was to feed my addiction. I was going from city to city and county to county and I ended up in the desert, not knowing anybody. I had a near death experience. I almost froze to death. This was in February this year. But that wasn’t the worst feeling. My worst feeling of all was feeling spiritually dead. That God had abandoned me… but in reality he didn’t.
“But when my daughter was giving birth to her second grandson, my fifth grand boy, and I wasn’t a part of that… that really hurt.
“See, my kids were embarrassed, ashamed of their father. I didn’t realize that I was making them suffer. I was so selfish and self-centered. After that happened I said, that’s it, I give up. So I called my best friend and he picked me up and brought me to the Midnight Mission.
“When I got to the Midnight Mission I was hopeless, helpless, heartless… I had no idea the Midnight Mission was going to work for me. But when they gave me my first job I was so happy to have some form of responsibility. I was cleaning toilets, urinals and showers for a dorm of 150 men. And it was humbling at times, because when I would tell the men it was closed, they wouldn’t listen and they would go in the bathroom while I was cleaning. And I’d be on my knees like Cinderella with a towel.
“But that’s where I heard from God. See, he whispered in my ear and told me, ‘See, my son, you are cleaning the dirt off the tile. That’s what’s happening with your life right now.’”
Noreaga’s speech finished with him introducing his son who stood up as the entire room rose up in applause.
Later in the night came the time to honor Chuck Lorre, who was awarded the Golden Heart for his donations and commitment to the Mission.
A personal idol of mine, Lorre’s speech was so good that I’d be remiss not to drop a few lines from it here as well:
“Thank you, Midnight Mission. What an incredible honor to be part of this organization in any capacity. [Holds up Golden Heart Award trophy, looks at it, looks at audience.]
“Kinda looks like an Emmy!
“I want to first thank all my friends and colleagues for coming tonight and helping me support this incredible organization. Some of you came a long way and I really, deeply appreciate it. Thanks to Norman Harris who got me to do this by selling a 1971 Fender Jazzmaster…
“On a truly personal level, I want to say thank you to Mr. Dick Van Dyke. Growing up, I never missed your show. It was and still is the holy grail for comedy writers. I can’t tell you how many injuries I sustained while trying to hop and trip myself over my ottoman as a kid. Your performance in Mary Poppins… you have no idea how much damage I did running around my house swinging a broom. Thank you for a lifetime of laughter.
“I also need to acknowledge the longtime guiding light of the Midnight Mission, Clancy Imislund. Clancy has been in the trenches helping people for well over 50 years. He’s a legend. He’s revered by millions all over the world. I like to think of him as the L’ron Hubbard of recovering alcoholics.
“About 15 years ago my TV career was in a low ebb. Just to be clear, “low ebb” is a gentile way of saying my four-year deal with Warner Bros. was only slightly less disastrous than the deal they made with AOL.
“So, I went to my friend Jerry at the Mission, and I shared with him how depressed I was over my failures, and he shared with me that he was depressed as well because he was fighting for his life against hepatitis C. And just like that, I went from feeling sorry for myself to feeling like a complete asshole. But then he said something that changed my life. He told me to go back to work, and “say yes” to everything that came my way. Don’t question it, don’t criticize it, don’t judge it… just say yes and see what happens. And for reasons I’ll never understand I did what he asked.
“Over the next few months I wrote half a dozen spec scripts, joined forces with anyone who would have me, and basically said yes to every project and stream of thought that came into my head.
“And you know what happened?
“As far as I can tell, at the time, the only medical condition Jerry should’ve been worried about was a chronic case of new-aged bullshit.
“And then an opportunity came along, an opportunity that on the surface was so awful, so filled with problems… every cell in my body told me to run from it like I was a zoftig Miss Universe trapped in Trump Tower.
“Yes, that’s what the cells in my body told me.
“My friends, my wife, my forever, Peter Roth, urged me to say no.
“They said I should run from this like I was a pretty blonde news anchor trapped in a conference room with Roger Ailes.
“Yeah, that’s what they said.
“But in the back of my head, my buddy from the Mission whose income was 99% bootlegging ink cartridges from thrown out printers was whispering… say yes.
“So, against everyone’s well-being advice, and my own best instincts, I began work on what was clearly going to be a complete and total waste of time.
“And that, boys and girls, is how Two and a Half Men happened.
“And without Two and a Half Men, there is no Big Bang Theory, there is no Mike and Molly, and, certainly, a whole lot less Charlie Sheen.
After Lorre’s speech, Larry Adamson, Director/President and CEO, Emeritus of the Mission, was also awarded a Golden Heart. I didn’t have a chance to record Adamson’s speech and lay it out for you here, but you can (and should) learn more about the incredible work he’s done for the Mission here.
“During his tenure at The Midnight, he has been successful in growing the total asset to over $46 million, an increase of $20 million. In 2005, he led the corporate relocation effort of The Midnight Mission’s new 138,000 square foot facility at 6th St. & San Pedro St. in Los Angeles’ “Skid Row.” He has also lead the efforts which secured one of the largest AmeriCorps grants in the nation for outreach services.”
I hope to have the privilege of meeting Larry one day soon.
Before the Gala was over, I was fortunate to meet a few more Midnight Mission angels: Tami Phillips and Georgia Berkovich. Remember when Dr. Ron told me he liked my photos and I said I felt validated? Well, Georgia had an even better compliment: In the same story Ron was referring to, I wrote about a small encounter I had with a man named Melvin who works at the Mission. Melvin introduced me to people at the Mission, brought me to where I needed to go, and really helped alleviate the stress of walking through the Missions hallways for the first time.
Melvin is an example of someone the Mission took in off the street and helped turn his life around by providing a steady job and place to live. As I checked my blog post for page views in the days after publishing it, little did I know that Georgia was printing my story and rushing it over to Melvin’s office. When Melvin saw his name in print, he began to cry tears of joy.
I couldn’t tell you which made me feel more satisfied as a writer: Having a board member praise my work, or knowing my writing positively impacted Melvin on a personal level.
Days later, however, in talking to Georgia as I prepared to publish this story, I learned that Melvin left the Mission. I did a little research on the Mission’s website, and found a few details about Melvin’s life that I didn’t know at the time when we met. I found them very shocking:
“Life hasn’t been an easy for Melvin. At six years old, Melvin witnessed his mother’s murder. After her death, Melvin was moved from his hometown of Dallas, Texas to live with his father and stepmother in California. There, he was physically, sexually and mentally abused at the hands of his stepmother. He began running away from home at age 11 to escape the abuse. Not long after that, Social Services placed him in Foster Care. Upset that his brother couldn’t live with him, Melvin attempted to kill his foster parents. “I had a gun and my brother told me that I wouldn’t do it, so I did. I shot one time.” Luckily, nobody died, but Melvin was arrested for attempted murder and sentenced to juvenile hall, only to be released few months later. Unfortunately, the violence didn’t stop there. Melvin bounced from foster home to foster home. He joined a gang at the age of 14 and did anything he could to fit in. “I just wanted to belong to something”, he said. By 1996, Melvin had become an alcoholic and dropped out of school. He tried to get help. But, while staying at a half-way house, he killed one of his roommates during an altercation. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison. After his release, he became addicted to crack cocaine. “I came to Skid Row to die. I was looking to get killed.” Melvin found his way to The Midnight Mission and now is a part of our EDAR program. He has been clean and sober for over 3 months. During his time here, he has voluntarily helped The Midnight Mission with cleaning the outside courtyard and performing daily tasks. He is working with one of our advocates to get the mental health, employment and housing services that he needs. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find employment and housing for someone who has been convicted of murder. But, our advocates will continue to work with Melvin to help him along the bridge to self-sufficiency. “I don’t know why I’m here. I should be in Prison or dead. I finally feel like I’m somebody because of the people here at The Midnight Mission. They gave me a chance. I don’t get angry like I used to. Now, I see purpose in my life and I want to give back and help others.” – Melvin Taylor
Holy shit. That’s insane. The way we spoke I would have never guessed it. If you read my last story, however, you’ll learn just how out of place I was…. I have chills just thinking about it!
Wherever Melvin is right now, I hope he is OKAY.
The Midnight Mission operates with millions of dollars every year thanks to generous donors like Kathy Bates and Chuck Lorre. But it’s never enough. One day, I hope to donate money and contribute to the Mission like them, or have the amazing grace like Georgia and Ron and Tammy to be able to devote more time. But for now, this is how I do it: Spreading the word through my writing. So, if you’ve made it this far, you must like what you read, and if you like what you read, why don’t you go to MidnightMission.org and make a donation, or share this story with someone who will. You’d be surprised how far the angels of the Mission can stretch a dollar, five, $100 or $100,000.
It’s simply amazing.