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, they can do it too,” Lundes said.
For the last 11 years he’s worked for the renowned Los Angeles social enterprise, which provides rehabilitation and reentry services for thousands of people formerly incarcerated or affiliated with gangs. It’s helped him find “light at the end of the tunnel” after serving time, said Lundes, who now works as a substance abuse disorder intake coordinator.
“It was an honor to meet her and welcome her to the Homeboy bakery,” he said. “I told her a little about what they do back there.”
Biden’s visit was brief, stopping by for a tour of the nonprofit’s bakery and cafe after speaking earlier in the afternoon at a nearby fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee, 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 remembered fondly as she and others gathered outside the Homegirl Cafe in Chinatown to watch Jill Biden’s motorcade drive off.
“I truly believe that 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’s a relationship between the Bidens and Homeboys.”
Homeboy Bakery and Homegirl Cafe are two of Homeboy Industries’ sprawling social enterprises, which center on an 18-month rehabilitation program that helps people reenter the workforce with job training and wraparound services.
Founded by Father Gregory Boyle more than three decades ago, the nonprofit now serves hundreds of trainees in Southern California every year.
“Homeboy really represents that hope that people can change their lives, and for the first lady of the United States to come to us, and be part of our community … it’s just thrilling for all of us here, in particularly our trainees,” said Tom Vozzo, chief executive of Homeboy Industries.
Homeboy is 90% privately funded, Vozzo said, but local and federal government support can make a big difference. The nonprofit was recently awarded a $2-million U.S. Department of Labor grant aimed at supporting young people who have gone through the criminal justice system, and the Biden administration has recently touted “incarceration to employment” as a priority.
“They’re here and they’re trying to put more money into workforce development for people that have been previously incarcerated, and that’s the population we serve,” Vozzo said. “Having a consistent set of government contracts will enable us to serve that many more people.”
Eugene Walker, Homeboy’s workforce development manager, told the first lady about mentoring others now going through what he did, making the transition from prison through Homeboy’s training program.
“What is the secret sauce? We build relationships,” Walker told Biden. “We meet you where you’re at…. The magic of Homeboys happens everyday.”
Chapa wasn’t able to 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 margins” Homeboy aims 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 are with a president and people that are in these positions.”