Pulling on her yellow work gloves alongside a metal swing set, Army veteran Stephanie Lewis steadied a two-by-four as it was drilled into place to form the base of a sturdy new playground bench in Watts.
Lewis was born in Watts and raised in Compton and Long Beach. “This is my community. My grandmother and auntie worked in schools right here,” she said. “It was rough growing up in the 90s. But looking at the community now, there’s a lot that’s calmed down and a lot that’s changed.”
Lewis is a fellow with the non-profit The Mission Continues. On Saturday, a team of about 20 military veterans and civilian volunteers with the group assembled a shade structure, picnic tables and recycling bins, as well as spruced up the landscaping around the playground of the Gonzaque Village low-income housing complex located at 103rd Street and Compton Avenue.
“Doing this gives us purpose. We served in the military and now we’re bringing those skills back to the community,” Lewis said.
The Mission Continues is a national non-profit organization that partners with local groups to deploy teams of veterans to tackle service projects in their communities. It targeted the Gonzaque Village site for beautification with the help of City Councilman Joe Buscaino’s office.
Regan Turner is a Marine Corps veteran and the Executive Director of the Western Region branch of The Mission Continues. He said the goal is to make an impact in the neighborhoods the group serves, but also to assist veterans with their transition to the civilian world. Service projects and teamwork within a volunteer “platoon” provide veterans with the same sense of mission they were accustomed to in the military.
“For the first time, many of our veterans feel like they are part of a community again,” Turner said. “A lot of them are finding leadership opportunities again and personal growth.”
The organization initially focused its membership efforts on the post-9/11 veteran population.
“I think we were responding to that millennial generation wanting experiences, wanting to connect with one another, wanting to get out into the community,” Turner said. “We want to change the narrative about what this generation has been through, and what we’re all about. And what tremendous assets we are to our country when we get back.”
A few yards across the playground, Marine Corps veterans Chris Barreras of Whittier and Freddie Maldonado of Vista sanded the rough edges of a recycling bin cover.
Last year, Maldonado retired as a Gunnery Sergeant after 22 years in the Corps. He deployed to Iraq 5 times and Afghanistan twice, experiences that now inspire him to help give back on the homefront.
“As Americans we take basic things for granted, like running water and electricity.” Maldonado said. His wife and 18-year old daughter made the drive to Watts to volunteer, and two more sons are Marines now stationed in Twentynine Palms.
Service organizations like The Mission Continues can help break down communication barriers between civilians and members of the military, a divide that’s growing wider in the era of the United States’ all-volunteer force, Barreras said. “There’s always something that connects us. Putting veterans in the community highlights what we can do.”
“A lot of people have a misconception that military folks are programmed,” added Maldonado. “Yes, we’re programmed—for success. Every civilian that I meet, I try and teach them.”
Around mid-morning, the bustling construction site got even busier. A troop of men on impressively tricked-out bicycles rolled onto the Gonzaque Village playground. Two Los Angeles-based anti-gang groups, The East Side Riders Bike Club and Los Ryderz, showed up to support the community volunteering effort.
"We were out feeding the hungry in the community, and some of the veterans wanted to see our bikes," said East Side Riders founder John Jones III. "Some of them thought we were a motorcycle club."
"We set goals for kids, to get their high school diploma and then a job or trade," said Javier Partida, the president and founder of Los Ryderz. The group has locations in Watts, Downey and South Central. "We want to show our support for the veterans today."
The Los Angeles Housing Authority runs the 184-unit Gonzaque Village housing project in Watts. The neighborhood was completed in 1942 under the name Hacienda Village, when rental preference was given to defense industry workers. Today, the complex serves low-income residents who are elderly or disabled, as well as families.
In June, The Mission Continues will hold its third annual “mass deployment,” with 80 veterans from all over the country converging on Watts for a week of service projects. The group’s website has more information about volunteering opportunities.