The Wash Project and beyond: student outreach for unhoused inspires new programs

 

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Past a hillside retaining wall covered in bright graffiti, a dirt path winds through arid grasses and flowering shrubbery framed by rolling hills, the scenery of a pleasant nature walk. Down a rocky embankment into a growth of trees lining a wide, sandy river bottom the shapes of structures emerge from the shadows, the air grows heavy and the path becomes a gateway into another world.

<p> Silvana Albornoz, left, and Christian Figueroa, right, co-founders of The Wash Project hand out sandwiches, chips and water to unhoused individuals in a river wash area last spring. </p>

Silvana Albornoz, left, and Christian Figueroa, right, co-founders of The Wash Project hand out sandwiches, chips and water to unhoused individuals in a river wash area last spring.

<p> Left to right, The Wash Project co-founder Ashley Peak, a wash resident, and project co-founders Silvana Albornoz and Christian Figueroa during the early days of the project. (Following photos, courtesy of The Wash Project) </p>

Left to right, The Wash Project co-founder Ashley Peak, a wash resident, and project co-founders Silvana Albornoz and Christian Figueroa during the early days of the project. (Following photos, courtesy of The Wash Project)

<p> Ӱ̳ students play soccer with a resident of a local community of unhoused individuals. </p>

Ӱ̳ students play soccer with a resident of a local community of unhoused individuals.

<p> Ӱ̳ students sing to residents of The Gardens of Riverside assisted living facility as part of the new ReACT outreach program. (Photo courtesy of Silvana Albornoz) </p>

Ӱ̳ students sing to residents of The Gardens of Riverside assisted living facility as part of the new ReACT outreach program. (Photo courtesy of Silvana Albornoz)

Last spring, four Ӱ̳ students, two carrying large plastic bins filled with brown bag lunches and chips and others lugging backpacks filled with water bottles approach a first lean-to structure on the side of the embankment. The small shelter, like others situated further downhill among the dense vegetation, was surrounded by detritus and cast-off items. It was one of the last visits of the school year for students involved in The Wash Project, an outreach for the area’s unhoused living in tents, dilapidated recreational vehicles and cars, and shelters forged from tarps, pieces of wood and other repurposed materials.

The structures and shelters are scattered among the riparian woodland and grasses of the river bottom situated roughly 15 miles from La Sierra’s campus. Many of the residents own dogs, for both companionship and protection. A few have planted small gardens and raise chickens, including one individual who dug a make-shift water well using rudimentary equipment.
 

“The first thing He will do is always supply their needs, and then He will say, ‘follow me.’” -- Silvana Albornoz, The Wash Project co-founder, pre-medical neuroscience major

The Wash Project, a program of La Sierra’s Spiritual Life Office, got underway in fall of 2022 spearheaded by pre-medical neuroscience major and Peruvian native Silvana Albornoz along with theology major Erick Baez Rodriguez, pre-dentistry and clinical health science alumna Ashley Peak, and pre-dentistry biochemistry major Christian Figueroa. The project ultimately attracted more than 70 students over the course of a year who participated in weekly group visits to the encampment. The students aimed to provide life-affirming connection and conversations, while offering food, bottled water and other necessities, and spiritual support through prayer for residents who desired it.

More than 300 students and faculty members donated food for The Wash Project using extra money from meal plans at the end of the year.

The Wash Project’s last outing to visit the unhoused took place in spring 2023, and during the summer students planned to create new ways to serve and help their community.  This school year, project leaders are forming a new outreach endeavor called ReACT based on their work with the homeless encampment.

Over the past two years, the students began to actualize the vision of ReACT through The Wash Project, Albornoz said. “They have gained an immense amount of experience with trial and error. ReACT is a response to their dreams and vision for communal and local outreach.”

Albornoz and other Wash Project leaders pattern their approach to outreach after Jesus’ methods of impacting others. “The first thing He will do is always supply their needs,” Albornoz said, “and then He will say, ‘follow me.’”

Albornoz and other Wash Project founders and students are now leading ReACT with the help of John Thomas, dean of the Zapara School of Business. Each Friday, students visit residents of The Gardens of Riverside, an assisted living facility under a project they call “Adopt a Grandparent.” The students aim to engage with the residents through a variety of activities, offering companionship, joy and intergenerational exchange, Albornoz said. The students’ first meeting with the residents took place during the third week of school. “It was a success,” said Albornoz. “They met so many residents and loved their energy. They want to invite more students from La Sierra to experience a wonderful day with the elderly in our community.”

Voices from the wash

Between winter of 2022 and throughout spring of 2023, students made weekly treks to visit unhoused residents of the river wash who typically land there for a variety of complex, often interrelated reasons – healthcare challenges and shattering personal losses, mental health problems, prior incarcerations, drug addictions and resulting obstacles retaining employment, lack of identification records and challenges entering and remaining in social service programs. Many struggle with issues rooted in difficult childhoods filled with abuse and neglect.

During a visit toward the end of last school year, several wash residents spoke briefly about their pasts and their experiences living in unsecured shelters in an area of natural beauty, yet vulnerable to extreme heat, flash floods and episodes of law enforcement activity.

Robert

“I've been here for a long time. I've been out here since 2006 on and off,” said an individual named Robert who was living in the wash with three young adults he referred to as his children. “I grew up in this area. I've been here in California since 1971. I came here as a child and I was taken away by the county because my dad abused us,” he said.

Robert graduated from John W. North High School in 1982. He talked about periods of incarceration, a former marriage, raising a family. He said he began living in the wash to be with the three young adults and to help them, and plans to stay until they are ready to leave, he said.  He noted the difficulty wash residents face in such daily life matters as keeping their vehicles registered, difficulties with time-limited housing assistance and other safety net programs.

The La Sierra students’ impact on members of the encampment extended well beyond the egg salad and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches they handed out to residents – their compassionate outreach and spiritual impact made a profound difference. “They bring the outside world in, they bring real stuff in,” Robert said. “They listen to us, and they hear us and they work with us. They don’t condemn us. To see today’s children doing that, and liking it, that’s amazing.

“They pray with us. They’re not just kids anymore, they’re friends,” he said.

Mayor Bill

Bill, a resident of the river wash for 18 years leaned unsteadily on a cane as a he spoke in a tree-lined yard area near his dilapidated trailer and a small boat. Over the years he has become a de facto spokesperson for the population there, earning him the nickname of ‘mayor.’ He said he believes it is good for the Ӱ̳ student group to visit the encampment as the experience provides an opportunity for them to “see what is on the other side of the fence, to show kindness, to be friendly and get along with people,” without judgement or narrow mindedness.

“It’s good to see that there are people who still have Christian ethics and doing good and helping people out who are less fortunate, it’s really cool,” he said.

Long-ago circumstances descended like dominoes and set the stage for Bill’s circumstances. In a prior life, Bill had a career with a construction company paving highways and working in land development. But a bad bicycle accident created job-ending medical problems. Around the same time he suffered the loss of his younger brother to a drug overdose. Bill struggled to cope.

“Then my mom passed away a few years after that, so I just kept getting myself in and out of trouble. I got tired of being in trouble,” he said. Then rheumatoid arthritis set in. “I’ve been surviving and I just tried to keep busy…I kind of like it down here. I’m pretty much content with what I’m doing. I put myself here and hopefully one day things change around.”

Thomas

“I like it when people from the community come down here and get a different view of what we’re doing down here. Almost everybody in the city thinks anybody who lives down here is bad. That’s not true at all,” said a resident named Thomas. He estimated that around 100 unhoused people live in the immediate wash area.

Thomas, who has experienced incarceration, has lived in the wash intermittently for 20-plus years and helped build up the community, he said. Many residents owns dogs and cats. “It makes them feel like they’re worth something, it’s amazing,” he said.

Thomas owns a dog which he took under his wing after finding the animal in a state of poor health. “I found her dying, man,” he said, “and now me and her, we’re together every day single day. She loves me, I love her.”

Inspired to serve

Albornoz grew up influenced by her physician father, his frequent visits to his childhood home in an impoverished rural village and his promise to never forget his roots. Albornoz was a first-year medical student at Seventh-day Adventist Peruvian Union University when her father organized a free health campaign in his community. She helped with logistics for the project and created programs for children. She and her family were also members of the Villa Union Adventist church at the university where Albornoz participated in outreach activities and where she developed a love for helping others. “That is thanks to my parents,” she said. “They put that in me and I really liked it.”

Engaging in service opportunities through La Sierra’s Office of Spiritual Life proved to be a natural draw for Albornoz. She found support through Campus Chaplain Jason Decena and Associate Chaplain Pono Lopez who provided resources and encouraged the formation of The Wash Project. Her initial idea was to tackle a major societal challenge such as homelessness and provide opportunities for volunteers with different talents to serve and impact others using their gifts, such as music or art or athletics.

“I wanted to make a huge program with different little programs and different leaders where you can go and help out,” she said. Her friend and fellow student Baez Rodriguez provided the encouragement and support she needed to get started, she said.

Conversations and planning began in fall 2021 and by winter 2022 Albornoz and fellow students had established the homeless outreach endeavor with the help of additional students and advice from San Bernardino Fusion Ministry, a homeless program in Loma Linda.

Albornoz together with Baez Rodriguez, Figuerora, and then-Spiritual Life Outreach Director and Student Chaplain Ashley Peak set about locating homeless individuals in the Riverside area whom they could approach to offer assistance. They started their quest in Riverside’s Fairmount Park, at the time known to be frequented by unhoused individuals.

Eventually they encountered one individual who directed them to the wash area of the nearby river, but the students traveled encountered only three people.

“So we took notes and hung out with them for a little bit,” Albornoz said. “We tried to show them we weren’t there to hurt them. They have problems and they don’t trust easily. We came back the next week and brought sandwiches and what they were needing.”

Three or four weeks passed and the students returned each week to serve the small group of unhoused individuals they had encountered. During one visit, a girl approached them and asked for their assistance with another group of homeless people. She led the students down to the riverwash “So we followed her and we found this huge camp. So we decided to work with that area and that’s how it started,” Albornoz said.

Albornoz and the team began marketing The Wash Project to the campus in emails and social media posts. The project attracted a following of students who joined the weekly caravan bringing food, water, and spiritual sustenance to the wash encampment each Friday afternoon.

“I think the secret of outreach is consistency,” Albornoz said. “The key is to build relationships with them. You can’t make change if you don’t follow up, so that was like our purpose.”

Providential pathways

Inspired by her father to pursue medicine, Alboronoz studied in medical school for upwards of four years at Peruvian Union University before deciding to continue her education in the U.S. She was accepted into the medical program at Peruvian University directly out of high school, a typical academic path to becoming a doctor in the South American nation.

However Albornoz wanted to complete her education in a different cultural setting, to pursue new opportunities, and to avoid political turmoil that was unfolding in her country. Upon her mother’s suggestion, she researched Loma Linda University’s offerings and in the process learned about La Sierra’s pre-medical program as a gateway into Loma Linda’s medical school. She also learned along the way that in the U.S. a bachelor’s degree is first required before enrolling in medical school.

Meanwhile, her parents struggled with his daughter’s decision to continue her education more than 4,000 miles away on a different continent. The family turned to God in prayer.

“So we prayed and my dad, he said ‘if you get in and all the paperwork it’s done and if God opens the doors, then okay, we will support you because that means that God wants you to be there,” Albornoz recalled.

She began the enrollment application process which included a required English proficiency test by July 30, 2021 – she did not pass it. Albornoz was resigned to remaining in Peru when a follow-up message from Ӱ̳ informed her of another test she could take in place of the first one – Albornoz passed the second exam and was accepted. By that time it was August 15 with classes starting the next month. She still needed a student visa to travel to the U.S. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic which was still in play, the U.S. Embassy in Peru was not granting many interviews and could not fit her in until the following March.

Albornoz called the embassy and urgently requested an emergency appointment due to her upcoming classes in the U.S. which were preceded by a mandatory two-week Covid mitigation quarantine required of new international students at the time. The embassy gave her an interview the following week. During the meeting with the embassy agent, she again pressed the need for quick processing and was given a priority status on her application. She received her visa two weeks later and two days after that she bought her airline ticket to California, arriving to Riverside and Ӱ̳ just in time.

“And all that was just praying with my family,” she said, and being open to God’s will and leading.