Mario Lundes greeted First Lady Jill Biden at the Homeboy Industries bakery Friday afternoon, eager — but nervous — to share his redemption story.
“It’s hard, but if I did it, so can they,” Lundes said.
For the past 11 years, he has worked for the renowned Los Angeles-based social enterprise, which provides rehabilitation and return services to thousands of previously incarcerated or gang members. It has helped him find “light at the end of the tunnel” after serving time, said Lundes, who now works as a substance abuse co-ordinator.
“It was an honor to meet her and welcome her to Homeboy’s bakery,” he said. “I told her a little bit about what they do there.”
Biden’s visit was brief, stopping by for a tour of the nonprofit’s bakery and cafe after speaking at a nearby Democratic National Committee fundraiser earlier in the afternoon, but she said she was glad she could get there.
“I’ve heard so much about this place,” Biden said after listening to stories from other “homies” and helping make a few pastries. “All it takes is for one person to believe in you.”
President Biden visited the organization in 2015, when he was vice president, something Emily Chapa fondly recalled when she and others gathered outside the Homegirl Cafe in Chinatown to watch Jill Biden’s motorcade drive away.
“I do believe we have a friend in the White House,” said Chapa, who works in case management for the nonprofit. “They know about us; it feels like they respect what we do…. There is a relationship between the Bidens and Homeboys.”
Homeboy Bakery and Homegirl Cafe are two of Homeboy Industries’ sprawling social ventures that focus on an 18-month rehabilitation program that helps people return to work with job training and enveloping services.
The nonprofit, founded more than three decades ago by Father Gregory Boyle, now serves hundreds of interns in Southern California each year.
“Homeboy really represents that hope that people can change their lives, and that the first lady of the United States comes to us and is part of our community… it’s just exciting for all of us here, especially our interns, said Tom Vozzo, director of Homeboy Industries.
Homeboy is 90% privately funded, Vozzo said, but local and federal government support can make a big difference. The nonprofit recently received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to support young people through the criminal justice system, and the Biden administration recently touted “incarceration to work” as a priority.
“They’re here and they’re trying to put more money into staff development for people who have been in prison before, and that’s the population we serve,” Vozzo said. “Having a consistent set of government contracts allows us to serve a lot more people.”
Eugene Walker, Homeboy’s human resources development manager, told the first lady about mentoring others who are now going through what he was doing, transitioning from prison to Homeboy’s training program.
“What’s the secret sauce? We build relationships,” Walker told Biden. “We meet you where you are… The magic of Homeboys happens every day.”
Chapa couldn’t talk to Biden, but she said it still meant a lot to her, knowing the first lady came and heard from some of the “people on the fringe” Homeboy wants to serve.
“The things that we stand for, that are in our mission,” Chapa said, “it’s nice to see some of those same policies and beliefs with a president and people in these positions.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.