Although the holiday season is a time when we place special emphasis on generosity and goodwill, our community is full of individuals and organizations that constantly work to serve those in need. Here, we shine the spotlight on three nonprofits in our area that, respectively, have found innovative and inspiring ways to aid seniors struggling with neurological disorders, fight food insecurity and rescue homeless pets.
Music Mends Minds
On Irwin Rosenstein’s 70th birthday, he received a gift that was far from what he expected — a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Just three years later, dementia came into the picture, making each day that much more challenging for Irwin and his wife, Carol, who had been married for over 20 years at the time.
Despite the relentless progression of the neurodegenerative diseases — the symptoms of which included, for Irwin, increased agitation and hallucinations from the medication he was taking multiple times daily — Carol refused to give in to despair or give up on her husband. And when things seemed at their lowest for the Rosenstein family, she made a discovery that would change countless lives for years to come.
“I would see Irwin trying to play the piano in our living room, which he loved to do socially,” Carol says. “He would start out draped over the piano keys like a wet noodle, but five or 10 minutes into the playing of the music, I would see him literally sit up and become a dry noodle and reintegrate into the environment just like I had given him a pill. I had to remind myself that I hadn’t given him a pill, because I was told the dose had to be reduced due to the hallucinations.”
After seeing the same scene play out several times, Carol became more and more intrigued. She called the family’s neurologist to report her findings and was shocked by what he told her.
“The doctor told me, ‘Carol, you are watching the power of music changing brain chemistry,’” she says. “I was floored. I thought to myself, ‘Does that mean I can bring like-minded souls to jam together so that we can all feel good in the moment of music making?’”
Carol went home, pulled out her Rolodex, and began calling whoever she thought could benefit from the power of music. “I told people that we’re starting a music group for those with neurodegenerative diseases,” she recalls. “I shared how I had just spoken with the doctor, and he explained to me that in the moment of music making, chemicals are being released — ‘feel-good, happy chemicals’ — during the process of making music.”
That’s when Music Mends Minds (MMM) was born.
At the group’s first meetup in Culver City in 2014, which about 30 people attended, it didn’t take long for Carol to witness something special.
“We mingled for 10 or 15 minutes at the start, and then, miraculously, four souls gravitated to a Steinway piano, drum kit and harmonica while my husband picked up the saxophone,” she says. “From there, I watched the miracle unfold in front of my eyes and the eyes of all of those strangers. Within 15 minutes, these four souls were joined at the hip as music brothers. They were so taken by each other and the ability to jam and do something they loved to do that remained with them while they were in the middle of these horrendous diagnoses.”
The core four that day — Sam Mayo (harmonica, dementia), Paul Livadary (piano, Alzheimer’s), Gene Sterling (drums, Parkinson’s) and Irwin (saxophone, Parkinson’s/dementia) — would go on to form The 5th Dementia Band, MMM’s flagship band that today features more than 30 members and performs every Thursday from 2 to 3 p.m. at the Brentwood Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles.
“When people attend our events, they are stunned to see a group of seniors on stage, all stricken with diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia and traumatic brain injuries, and how they respond to the music,” Carol says. “We are seeing people receive a second chance and have their identities renewed. These people were attorneys, surgeons and psychiatrists in the professional world, and today, some of them couldn’t tell you their names. By putting a musical instrument in their hand that they haven’t played in years, it’s really amazing to see the light switch go on.”
When Irwin’s illnesses really started to take a toll on him a few years ago, leaving him bedbound and unable to walk or talk, music was still his close companion. “In 2021, Irwin was literally on a countdown,” Carol shares. “I would go into his room in the morning, and I would turn on the radio. I would sing to a song like ‘Dancing Queen,’ and he would be motionless. But within seconds, once he got the beat of the music, his hands would come up from under the sheets, and he would start moving to the rhythm of the music. He wouldn’t roll over and kiss me good morning and tell me he hoped I had a nice day — he would dance with me. I know in the end that he crossed over with a smile on his face when nothing else would evoke a response.”
Although Irwin has passed, his legacy continues to live on. Today, MMM has 18 bands nationally and globally, including a Zoom group that holds three free sing-along sessions a week for anyone to join. MMM also recently formed a partnership with Los Angeles County to create 16 additional groups countywide.
“Los Angeles County aims to serve the underserved, and when these 16 new music groups are up and running, we will be serving an underserved population who are lost,” Carol says. “Money is tight, and medical services are hard to come by, but music is going to keep their spirits lifted since it’s medicine for the mind.”
One of MMM’s oldest groups is the local Studio City Jazzanovas, which formed in 2015 and was revived post-COVID. The group recently held a concert at the Unitarian Universalist Church in June. “There was standing room only at their first event, and the church had to open up its upstairs area, which they never do,” Carol says. “People in and around Toluca Lake can come to their rehearsals on Wednesdays at Unitarian Universalist Church of Studio City from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. to see what I’m talking about.” To learn more about MMM, visit musicmendsminds.org.
While slowly walking his aging dog around his San Fernando Valley neighborhood in 2009, Rick Nahmias started noticing how much fruit from the trees in the yards he passed went unharvested and was left to rot on the ground. It was the era of the Great Recession, and demand at food pantries was surging. A formally trained cook as well as an award-winning photographer and writer focused on food justice, Nahmias realized that his neighbors’ uneaten fruit might offer one means of increasing access to fresh produce for those in need. He took out an ad on Craigslist looking for volunteers to harvest tangerines from local backyard trees, and in a single day of picking they were able to donate 85 pounds of citrus to SOVA, the Jewish Family Service LA’s food pantry in Lake Balboa. Nahmias’ ingenious idea to simultaneously address the environmental issue of food waste and the social issue of food insecurity would take root and sprout into Food Forward, a North Hollywood–based nonprofit that rescues surplus produce and shares it with hunger relief organizations.
Today, Food Forward comprises three different food recovery programs that together have distributed more than 350 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables free of charge to hundreds of charities throughout Los Angeles and the surrounding region. Continuing Nahmias’ original concept, the Backyard Harvest program organizes volunteers to glean surplus fruit from hundreds of private properties, public parks, orchards and farms throughout Los Angeles and Ventura counties and donates it to hunger relief organizations. Additionally, through the Farmers Market Recovery program, volunteers mobilize to collect donations of unsold produce from vendors at weekly markets throughout the region, including the Studio City Farmers Market. A single market might yield up to 2,000 pounds of seasonal fruits and vegetables, much of it organic. And the Wholesale Recovery Program rescues fresh produce by the truckload from vendors in the downtown Los Angeles Wholesale Produce District, where thousands of pounds of edible merchandise would otherwise be thrown out simply because of cosmetic flaws or changes in demand. In 2019, Food Forward opened its Produce Pit Stop in Bell, a warehouse hub that significantly increased the amount of wholesale produce it could handle. With loading docks, refrigerated and dry storage, and advanced inventory software providing the ability to keep and organize produce in a central location, Food Forward can create mixed loads of donations that provide a greater variety to help hunger relief groups meet the nutritional needs of those they serve.
Over the years, Food Forward has branched out from the Valley to serve greater Los Angeles County, seven other urban and rural California counties, and six neighboring states and tribal lands. It has been nationally recognized with a host of honors, including becoming the only organization to have won the EPA Food Recovery Challenge Innovation Award six years in a row. Yet, as Food Forward Director of Community Programs Samantha Teslik points out, it’s fitting that the organization has its roots in an area once dominated by orchards and farms, where nature’s bounty still flourishes today, even amid a now largely urban terrain. “As a San Fernando Valley native, I am personally connected to the rich agricultural history of our region, but it was not until moving to the East Coast that I realized how lucky we are to have citrus trees covering so much of our landscape,” she says. “After finishing graduate school, I moved back to Los Angeles and immediately fell in love with the mission of Food Forward as it intersects with my passions for food, the environment and supporting our community.”
Since she joined the organization in 2014, Teslik says, “awareness of the issues related to food waste has grown a lot and I believe more people are excited to get involved and make a positive impact.” Yet Food Forward has also had to surmount a number of obstacles, most notably the turmoil that came with the start of the COVID pandemic in 2020, swelling the demand for hunger relief while also adding new logistical hurdles to surmount. “When the pandemic began, we expanded our Wholesale Recovery Program to meet the growing need for accessible food,” Teslik recalls. “And we increased safety protocols in our volunteer-led Backyard Harvest and Farmers Market Recovery programs to continue rescuing food as safely as possible. It was a year of constant adaptations, but ultimately 2020 ended in us more than doubling the amount of produce we had ever recovered in one year, with a total of over 62.5 million pounds.”
And the organization has kept recovering and distributing more and more produce every year since, she adds, despite continuing to encounter new challenges along the way. “We have navigated extreme weather like Tropical Storm Hilary, which meant canceling farmers market recovery events to keep volunteers safe and also sending extra produce to farmworkers who were hit especially hard by storms and flooding. In the face of the potentially devastating citrus disease huanglongbing, which is transmitted by an insect called the Asian citrus psyllid, we have followed quarantine protocol when necessary and ensure that we’re storing and treating citrus properly to mitigate the spread.” In addition to the shifting conditions of the natural world, social and economic trends mean Food Forward is as intensely needed as ever. “In the face of inflation and rising food insecurity, we’re working to expand our efforts to provide more healthy food to the communities who are most affected,” Teslik says.
To do so, “we partner with a wide network of volunteers, donors and organizations who share their time, surplus produce, expertise and relationships to further the mission of reducing waste and sharing abundance,” she explains. Individuals who want to get involved with Food Forward have a variety of options: If you have a fruit tree of any kind that produces more than you can consume (“Yes, we take lemons!” Teslik notes), you can register it with the organization to coordinate a volunteer-driven harvest, or get information on doing a DIY harvest and be connected with a local food pantry to receive it. You can also sign up to volunteer at a produce recovery event, or make a financial donation to support Food Forward’s work as it keeps growing. “We’re on our way to recovering 80 million pounds of fruits and vegetables in 2023 and have the goal of recovering 190 million more pounds in the next two years,” Teslik shares. “This means we’ll be continuing to expand our programs and our capacity to recover produce, distributing it where it’s needed most.”
To learn more about Food Forward, visit foodforward.org.
The Rescue Train
For almost two decades, The Rescue Train has saved and enriched the lives of thousands of animals across L.A. County, earning a reputation as one of the hardest-working no-kill animal welfare organizations in Southern California. The volunteer-based group works tirelessly to fight pet overpopulation, get animals off the streets, stop needless pet euthanasia, and provide people with education on and access to pet wellness resources. And they do it all with love and compassion through a host of innovative programs and collaborative partnerships.
“The Rescue Train believes animals are sentient beings,” Executive Director Lisa Young says. “Our mission is to be their voice, prevent animal suffering and save as many lives as possible.”
Young’s rescue work began in 2001 after a life-changing trip to a city animal shelter where she learned that adoptable dogs and cats were being euthanized because the facility had too many animals and not enough housing. “I remember standing in the loud, overcrowded kennel, looking into all the dogs’ anxious eyes, and my heart just broke,” she recalls. “Their faces haunted me, and I made a promise that day to never turn my back on them.” The experience galvanized her to create a small rescue called Poochville. In 2004, during a rescue of two dogs living on the street, she met a lifelong friend in Delilah Loud, and together they founded The Rescue Train.
Since its inception, the organization has been in the streets and city and county animal shelters, rescuing cats and dogs and finding them forever homes. “We save all breeds, and we don’t shy away from senior animals or animals with treatable medical conditions. We invest a lot of time, love and resources in each animal in our care,” Young says. At any given time, the group has 20 to 30 cats and dogs in its adoption program (the organization doesn’t own a facility, so animals stay in private foster homes), and it provides various services to over 400 vulnerable animals per month.
The majority of what The Rescue Train does is tackle shelter overcrowding at its source with forward-thinking intervention programs. Its Keep Your Pet Project is one such initiative that was built on the idea that poverty directly contributes to shelter euthanasia. The goal of the program is to prevent animals from entering shelters by providing critical resources to low-income, senior citizen, veteran and homeless pet owners and giving them alternative options to surrendering their pets. The organization stations bilingual counselors inside L.A. Animal Services–East Valley Animal Shelter, runs a hotline for pet owners in crisis across L.A. and helps vulnerable residents feed their companion animals at low to no cost with its Pet Pantry resource.
“The Rescue Train helped pioneer shelter intervention, which is now a national movement in animal welfare,” Young shares. “In the last eight years, we have provided over 16,000 services to help vulnerable pets stay out of the shelter and remain home where they belong. We mentor other organizations to follow our successful model.” The Keep Your Pet Project has reached as far as Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, and it has helped Long Beach Animal Care Services implement a pet pantry. The organization also provides services at the highest-intake animal shelter in the San Fernando Valley, working as the only nonprofit within the facility.
Another way The Rescue Train addresses pet overpopulation is through coordinating, scheduling and subsidizing continuous spay/neuter clinics, which fix over 1,000 animals annually. The group’s free Feral Fix L.A. program targets the feral and stray cat problem by humanely trapping, neutering and returning sterilized cats to their location of origin. Over 2,000 feral cats have been fixed through the program, preventing millions of kittens from being born on city streets.
Additionally, the organization partners with nonprofits such as Hope of the Valley and LA Family Housing to provide free veterinary care, flea treatment, grooming and more to pet owners experiencing homelessness.
“The way we treat animals reflects our community,” Young says. “Many of The Rescue Train’s innovative programs support the human–animal bond and keep companion animals with their owners during challenging times. There are many ways animals play an important role in our lives and ground us to the earth. Our actions greatly affect their quality of life or lack thereof. The unconditional love, resilience and companionship that they provide are unmatched, and it is our duty to be their voice and to protect them.”
To raise awareness and funds for its efforts and those of other animal welfare nonprofits, in 2005 the group created Race for the Rescues, a 5K run/walk, 1K dog walk and adoption event held each year at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena (the 18th annual race took place on November 4). This event has twice been a finalist for the L.A. Business Journal’s Fundraising Event of the Year award. “This year alone we had 20 benefiting organizations that help dogs, cats, horses and farm animals and provide community pet-related services,” Young shares. “Race for the Rescues has raised over $5.5 million that has been distributed to the participating nonprofits.” The adoption component has also been wildly successful. “Year after year, we have sent the shelter truck back empty,” she adds.
Young says that none of The Rescue Train’s efforts would be possible without its dedicated volunteers — or “Animal Angels,” as they’re called by the organization. Throughout the year, 50 to 60 active volunteers help to foster animals, run monthly mobile pet assistance and adoption events, deliver food to homeless shelters and homebound pet owners, provide transportation and more. “We are always looking for kind, creative compassionate animal lovers. We like to think outside the box,” she says. “Our volunteers aren’t afraid to be in the trenches and roll up their sleeves when we are distributing pet food or holding spay/neuter clinics in low-income neighborhoods. If you are bilingual, we need you! We also rely on our volunteers to help with our fundraising events. The more funds we have, the more lives we can save.”
To learn more about The Rescue Train, visit therescuetrain.org.