It's an overcast, slightly rainy day in the South LA neighborhood of Watts. Twenty-five volunteers -- veterans and civilians -- show up to help The Mission Continues' 3rd Platoon Los Angeles revamp the athletic areas of Samuel Gompers Middle School. This project is the third for Gompers. Allison Bailey, TMC's Western Region City Impact Manager, is worried that some of those who signed up might be no-shows because of the rain.
"We definitely can't paint the lines on the field," she says.
Bailey is an Army veteran and reservist with a tour in Iraq and one in Afghanistan under her belt. She started as a Mission Continues volunteer and now works for TMC full time.
The Mission Continues doesn't just go out and do random projects; they want to make a lasting impact with tangible results. To do that, they forge long-term relationships with local communities.
A "platoon" launches when The Mission Continues determines there are enough veteran volunteers to support one. Platoons are dedicated to one geographic area. That's why 3rd Platoon LA is often at Gompers; they are devoted exclusively to Watts school. That's part of its "operation." An operation is a focused effort for a platoon.
In Watts, TMC works with the Partnership for LA Schools. 3rd Platoon has been in this operation for over a year. Bailey does a lot of prep work for the three platoons and two operations in the LA area.
"The goal is to feel dedicated," she says. "We've done a lot of projects here at Gompers Middle School and we try to get the staff and students involved as much as possible so they take ownership of the projects we do."
Elizabeth Pratt, the principal of Samuel Gompers Middle School, is here with the volunteers. She's worked with the veterans of The Mission Continues before. Students from the school are usually present, but since school is now out for the summer, there aren't any around today. Still, Pratt is eager for things that will benefit the next school year.
"My students will have the ability next year to have an actual baseball field and soccer field," Pratt says. "So not only will it enhance after school play, but it will also enhance our current P.E. program."
The first time Allison came to Gompers, she walked the grounds with Principal Pratt. They talked in depth about the possibilities for the school and the projects TMC could work on. Since then, the two have exchanged a few ideas for what to improve. The last time they cooperated, Gompers got a beautiful outdoor gardening area.
"The students were so excited," Pratt recalls. "The students and their families all came out. It gave everyone a real sense of pride."
When the veterans from 3rd Platoon first came to Gompers, they shared some of their experiences as veterans with the students. They shared a lunch and answered the children's probing questions. The two groups shared a lot with each other. Curiosity became cooperation and the veterans from TMC have returned to Gompers three times (to much fanfare from the student body).
The volunteers spend much of this otherwise gloomy Saturday on the Gompers campus. No one notices the weather. They turn an open patch of grass and a mound of dirt into a baseball diamond and soccer field. They pull four large bags of garbage off the playground. They build benches, a basketball backboard, and two soccer goals from wood and PVC piping, then reline the courts. No one complains and everyone hungrily eats their well-earned pizza lunch. After only six hours, these twenty-five people have completely transformed the quality of the school grounds.
Daniel Hinojosa, an Army veteran and native of the LA area's San Fernando Valley, now lives in downtown Los Angeles. This is his second visit to a TMC volunteer event.
"The progress is amazing," he says. "It's a neighborhood that definitely needs help and It feels good to help out. It gives me a sense of purpose. Everyone has a reason but for me, it's not about money. Giving back to people is the most fulfilling goal I could possibly have."
"It's not about a connection to the school or the neighborhood," Principal Pratt says. "People want to give to a place that needs the help. It brings people together in a very constructive way. It doesn't just build up a part of the school; it builds school pride, neighborhood pride. It doesn't matter if that neighborhood is Watts or Beverly Hills."