A former travel magazine editor, 29-year-old Midwest native Jess Hoffert is taking a 6-month break from the cubicle life to become immersed in the colorful culture of Southern California.

Looking for a few good neighbors

Looking for a few good neighbors

Today is my 48th day in Santa Ana. I almost can't believe I'm typing those words. The time has raced by so quickly, yet the surroundings feel so "normal" now. The palm trees have lost some of their exotic luster (but I still love to look at them). Leo and Max roam the church yard as if they've owned it their whole lives. And Max has become a bit too comfortable with the outdoors, having vanished for four hours on a recent Sunday. A search party of church ushers walked around the neighborhood, but no luck. Max eventually emerged from a small opening in the side of the church, into a tunnel between the floor and the foundation that hasn't been explored by humans since the 1960s. Whatever is down there, both Leo and Max find it super intriguing. They emerge with dust on their furry coats and cobwebs covering their faces. But we've since closed off the opening to prevent further feline explorations (and human search parties). 

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Despite the occasional "Where are the cats?" moments of panic, I am so glad they made the trek with me. They provide me with a living, breathing slice of home while bringing joy to a lot of the church youth and neighbors. I'm especially amazed at Leo. He was a very skittish cat who feared the outdoors back in Des Moines. Here, he is just as outgoing as Max, walking up to neighbors for a scratch behind the ear...and even to a couple dogs for a quick butt-sniff. 

Have I mentioned how great the neighbors are here? Before my trip, I was told by a few former Californians that if you're passing someone on the street in the LA/Orange County area, they won't acknowledge you. That's fake news, at least in this residential pocket of Santa Ana. When I'm on my morning run or working from the church yard as I am now, I'm often greeted by locals with a smile and a "hello" or "buenos dias." Occasionally, a neighbor in need comes by and asks for food and water (they know the church houses a food pantry for the community). As I'm preparing a bag of canned goods and granola bars for them, they express the kindest, most sincere gratitude for how this church blesses their lives. It's so cool to be a small piece of the greater ministry here, and I especially enjoy these one-on-one exchanges.

In the spirit of getting to know the community, I recently ventured into downtown Santa Ana to pop into businesses and introduce myself to restaurant managers and shop owners. Except this time, I was in the role of receiver rather than giver. At least, that was my goal.

One of the larger projects I've been working on since arriving here has been to raise funds for youth to attend National Youth Conference in Fort Collins, Colorado. This once-every-four-years event is one of those conferences that has the potential to change lives. I went in 2006, and there are still moments, song lyrics and quotes that I hold onto as guideposts for living a full and meaningful life. At this point, there are 21 youth and 2 advisors signed up to go from Príncipe de Paz. That's more than they've ever had go before. And at $500 per registration, it means there's lots of fundraising to be done. So my mission heading into downtown was to start making connections and see if local businesses would be willing to donate items or contribute in some way.

I visited 15 or so businesses, with mixed results. Most of the shops and restaurants referred me to a manager or someone else who wasn't there at the moment, and left me with a phone number or email address to contact. One disgruntled, old owner of a medicinal herb shop told me that too many people ask for handouts, and if he really wanted to help, he would ask the families of the church to come into his business and give them a condom so they would stop having so many children. To that, I politely said "Thanks for your time" and swiftly left his little shop, which clearly needs some improvement in the customer service area.

But I had better luck at other spots: my favorite local movie theater, a non-profit called The Frida, donated six complimentary tickets (I'm going to create movie-themed gift baskets with these and sell them at our silent auction in April). A new bakery down the street donated 25 coupons for free cookies. And I struck gold by walking into a new pizza restaurant on a whim, hoping for some coupons or a gift certificate for a free pizza. Instead, I got an offer from the owner to host a fundraising night there, in which 10% of all purchases made from 5-10pm would go directly to the church. 

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I excitedly told Pastor Richard about this pizza fundraiser, and he was immediately on board, for multiple reasons. On one hand, it's a super easy way to raise money, simply by handing out flyers and encouraging people to show up and buy pizza. But on a more important level, this is an opportunity for members of the church to come back to a neighborhood that no longer feels like the one they once knew. 

Downtown Santa Ana has changed quite a bit over the years. What was once an almost exclusively Hispanic neighborhood with Latino shops and restaurants has evolved into a gentrified area of German-style beer halls, trendy nightclubs, and matcha-centric ice cream cafes. There are still taco joints...but they've become the exception rather than the rule. The Orange County Register wrote an article about this evolution a couple of years ago and it's definitely worth a read to get some perspective on the changes that have occurred (it's also where I obtained the image below). 

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Richard and I hope that by inviting members of the church to a new business that's willing to give back to them, it will help them realize that this neighborhood—while changed—is still for them. It's a place where they should feel safe and welcome. And while I completely understand the uncertainty and skepticism after feeling "pushed out" of the area, I hope that their concerns go away after stepping into The Pizza Press next Monday. 

Stay tuned for next week's post to see if the pizza fundraiser ends up being a pie-in-the-sky success or a doughy flop. Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to my parents arriving this Sunday and sharing all of these wonderful new neighbors and neighborhoods with them. And yes, we'll be going out for pizza on Monday night.

Building a bridge, one slice at a time

Building a bridge, one slice at a time

Photo tour: The most colorful neighborhood

Photo tour: The most colorful neighborhood