Editor's note: The Deseret News has identified six heroes of 2014 — men and women making an impact in our six areas of emphasis. Danny Mendoza is our hero in the arena of family.
The twin problems of trash bags and transportation both played a role in Danny Mendoza's decision to start his own nonprofit organization seven years ago.
He was 19 years old and never expected to be either an advocate or an activist. He just wanted to get his 9-year-old cousin into foster care. He didn't know much about it, but figured it had to be better than living in a car.
As he looked into the foster care system, though, he found gaps, including the fact there was not a way for young people like him to help the youngsters in the system. That bothered him because he had been watching his young cousin bloom under the attention he and his friends provided.
Mendoza, a college student who by his own account had never given much time or thought to helping others, sold a couple of TVs and a gaming system because he wanted some money he could use to buy things he saw the children needed, recruited a few of those friends and launched a small-scale war on some problems that seemed to plague children he'd seen in foster care.
The lofty goal of his not-for-profit Together We Rise was to engage young people on college campuses in helping foster youth — who, sadly, seldom make it onto campus themselves because there are so many barriers and they have so little help. Foster children grow into adults who are more apt to be incarcerated than to enroll in America's colleges.
His efforts went after problems like these: Foster children often move around — it's not uncommon to be in two or three homes in a year — schlepping their belongings in trash bags.
Further, "when they turn 16 or 17, no one is going to buy them a car, so they need to learn how to ride a bike," he said. "The goal is to help them go to school and like basic grocery shopping. And a lot of these kids don't want to get a bike because they don't know how to ride. What's more, they're embarrassed, they're ashamed and they try to act too cool. Once we work with them and teach them how to ride, that's like the best thing ever."
Today, his dream has become a program with interns and volunteers on campuses in 49 states. TWR has won several national awards. He was a finalist for a VH1 Just Do Something award and was honored with a Chase American Giving Award. Celebrity tweets have made the group more visible to youths. But he's prouder to be able to say they've given bikes — and sometimes bike lessons — duffel bags and hope to foster youths in communities across the country.
Mendoza had figured out someone can make a big difference to a foster child without becoming a foster parent, which is just too big a task for some people who would nevertheless like to help. And some of what they needed was surprisingly small.
"We have a wall of thank-you letters in the office," said April Posadas, who deals with the media for Together We Rise, based in Chino, California. "Every thank-you is unique but ranges from thanking us for our Sweet Case program and providing their children with some hope, to our Build a Bike program giving kids their first bike.
"Danny comes up with different, creative ideas to reach out to the children and give them the hope and necessities that they need. We've given foster children everything from back-to-school clothes to apartment necessities like pots and pans, and laptops for children who are aging out of the system."
The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, started by the founder of the Wendy's food chain, has long been associated with adoptions and foster care. Rita Soronen, president and CEO, said that "Danny is someone who works tirelessly to improve the lives of children in foster care. His organization invites a new generation to become hands-on champions for children. We are so thankful that Danny is doing this great work and we cannot wait to see what the future brings in response to his passionate efforts.”
Mendoza recently announced he's stepping down as the public face of TWR. Their work requires a team, he said, and he's got great colleagues who do more, while he gets the accolades because he started it. He wants to slide further back into the team because "I want them to feel the same success I got to feel."
That brings up the question of whether he was always so considerate — and he bursts out laughing.
"Never in my life. I'd never volunteered and I'd never donated before this," he said. "Now, if a kid is selling chocolates for a cause at the store, I buy them all just because I know what he's doing and how hard it is.
"This was all new to me," he added, describing the early days when he and friends would "just spend all our money on these kids and not worry about a (tax) write off, not worry about anything. You wanted to just tell people what cool things you were doing to inspire them to do something good."
For years, until last month, Mendoza, like the rest of the staff, was an unpaid volunteer. He's one of six who will actually receive a paycheck, helped in their work by a group of 20 unpaid interns in the office, 100 nationwide and other volunteers.
"Everyone's hired for just one year," he said of those who are paid. They keep it sparse financially so resources go into the programs.
Mendoza has always lived in the Los Angeles area where he was reared alongside his brother by his Mexican immigrant parents. Money was tight enough that "I never got all the cool stuff I wanted, but I never went hungry, either."
They lived in apartments where neighbors lived the same way, so he didn't crave much he didn't have. In high school, he was surprised to see children with a lot more and wondered how they managed it.
He was, he admits, "a terrible child. I got in trouble a lot. I hung out with the wrong people. It was not until my last year of high school, when my parents made college a mandatory thing, that I started to pick things up so I could do good for myself."
He knew he could put himself through college if he worked hard, something he's never shirked. When he began studying criminal justice at Cal State Fullerton right out of high school, he worked full time at a law office and then took college classes four nights a week from 7-10 p.m. Every other semester, he took Saturday classes, too.
He ate most meals at a fast-food joint on campus.
"That worked out OK," he said. "Most of my professors did the same thing, so I'd meet up with them and have dinner together. They were understanding and helpful."
Still single, Mendoza hopes to adopt a child in a few years, regardless of what life brings him. He adores his brother's son and daughter and thinks every child deserves to be loved that much: "The more time I spend with them, I realize how much more I want to help other kids," he said.
Making foster children feel special is built into TWR, which took about 40 children to Disneyland a couple weeks ago, sending a donated Hummer limo to pick them up from a foster agency. On Mendoza's birthday in September, they took 200 children there.
"I think he's very creative in how he gets people involved and how he comes up with ideas to help kids," said Gianna Dahlia, who started as an intern with TWR three years ago and is now on staff.
She said Mendoza is skilled at involving the right people of all ages in a project.
"He's well-liked. He helps out and makes sure the interns do OK while they're here," she said. "They're working for free so he makes sure they're appreciated. I would just say that his dedication is crazy. He's given up everything to do this and he loves it still. It's not something a lot of people in college can or will just drop everything to do."
Besides the bikes and duffel bag programs, the I'm Aging Out program teaches youths who are about to become too old for foster care or who are being emancipated the skills they'll need to survive. TWR provides resume help and information on finding affordable insurance and housing, for example.
Early in the Build a Bike program, Mendoza and three volunteers loaded donated bikes on a trailer and hauled them to foster children in 16 states, from California to Florida. They drove with the heater on although it was summer to keep the vehicle from overheating and had to stop often. Being selected by Toyota to receive one of its 100 Cars for a Good Cause brought great joy.
Funds raised in any community stay there, helping foster children nearby. They also partner with local sponsors. The Sweet Cases program, providing stuffed suitcases or duffel bags for younger children, is a local effort with national guidance.
"Danny's dedication to Together We Rise is something so powerful it has motivated hundreds of young people across the country to take action and make their community a better place," said Dahlia, who describes working with him: "One time I was having a bad day and he called me after work and said, 'I can't let your day end with a frown on your face so there are two tickets waiting for you at the Lakers game.' So I went to the Lakers game with my father that night and had a great time. This is just one of the tons of examples of how Danny goes above and beyond as a boss/co-worker."
Mendoza said caring for others has let him surround himself with the best people: "I want genuine people in my life I know will always help me or help someone else," he said.
He meets people who show up to help someone else who can't pay them back. He figures that's as good as mankind gets.
The cousin who inspired it all is nearly college age now. Mendoza hopes the young man will come live with him for a while and go to school.
"He's thinking about it. I'm not going to force him, but he won't have to pay rent. I'll help if he'll let me," Mendoza said. "I have learned in all this that I can't help someone who doesn't want to be helped."
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