Leo Fink, 13, marked his bar mitzvah, a Jewish coming-of-age celebration by donating $1,800 to non-profit homeless shelter and recovery center San Diego Rescue Mission.
His mom, Jessica Fink, said bar mitzvah presents often are given as a variation on the number 18, such as a set of 18 items or a multiple of 18 like a $36 gift. Giving $1,800 was “a meaningful amount” but also significant in number.
“I couldn’t spend everything I received for my bar mitzvah,” Leo said, so in his family’s tradition, he saved some for college, invested some in an account, took “a teeny bit to spend” and donated the rest of the money.
Leo said he hopes the $1,800 he donated goes toward helping more people in different parts of San Diego county, “maybe some sort of rehabilitation program” or spots for people who need shelter.
SDRM closed escrow on a vacant school formerly used by South Bay Community Church at 2400 Euclid Ave. in National City back in February and is in the process of converting it to a transitional living center which will feed into longer term programs in downtown San Diego.
The new facility, dubbed a Navigation Center, will serve as a short-term intake facility with on-site meals, laundry services, a computer lab and storage areas, and is intended to provide initial direction before homeless guests are transferred elsewhere with an action plan toward programs and housing opportunities.
The goal, San Diego Rescue Mission President and Chief Executive Officer Donnie Dee said, is to “eliminate the immediate need for shelter, a shower, safety and food” then work with a case manager to address the need for permanent housing and a job.
Earlier this year, the Finks volunteered to serve Easter breakfast at the SDRM facility in downtown San Diego, in part because Leo needed to volunteer time in the community toward his bar mitzvah.
“I had to do something for my mitzvah and wanted to do something hands-on so I could participate in all the work rather than having people just drop stuff off. We found out about the rescue mission because my mom knows someone who works there,” Leo said.
However, both he and Jessica Fink said they were struck by the experience and continued to volunteer with subsequent meal services.
“We were in the boutique where homeless people get to come shop, they get three tickets to spend and it was all set up like a store. We take it for granted when we go into a store we’re treated a certain way as shoppers… we’re not handed clothing in a garbage bag,” Jessica Fink said.
Aside from her own experience, she said it was “a little discomforting” as a parent to watch her son navigate serving food to homeless residents.
“There was someone who kept coming through. Leo asked if they wanted one pork chop or two, and I pulled him aside to ask him how that would feel if you were hungry. I let it sit with him and then I noticed he changed his approach and started asking people how many pork chops they wanted.
Dee said it isn’t uncommon to have young volunteers pass through, especially with groups but every now and again they have a junior high or high schooler who wants to do something special.
“We’ve had seven year olds, eight and nine-year olds helping to hand out hygiene kits with their parents. Having young volunteers isn’t uncommon but Leo is uncommon. That’s what makes our country and our community great- having those young volunteers who want to act,” Dee said.
When people first encounter the homeless population, Dee said, it breaks their heart. Then, some people who see the problem for themselves develop a passion to help and to serve.
“I think that’s what made a difference for Leo. He saw it for himself, recognized a problem, developed a passion and wanted to do more,” Dee said.
At the end of the year, even without government funding, they “break even” Dee said and it is because of personal donations which “all have an impact” whether they are $5 or $1million.
“I had a lady who sent us a $5 money order and that just really challenged me because I realized it was important for her that we get the money, that it didn’t get lost in the mail, that she chose to donate to San Diego Rescue Mission. I’m grateful for the million dollar gifts but that $5 meant so much,” Dee said.
“We had 26,000 active donors last year and every single one of them was necessary. Leo gave a significant amount, especially for a kid,” Dee said.
Solving the problem of homelessness is going to take people like Leo and others in the community, Dee said.
“This whole experience has taught me to come with an open mind- just because someone is homeless on the streets doesn’t mean they’re bad, they just had bad luck. I got lucky and I’m grateful. These people are trying their best,” Leo said.