The Gjelina Group Foundation: Our Past, Our Present, Our Future

As we continue to evolve and grow The Gjelina Group Foundation — our 501(c)(3) registered nonprofit dedicated to uplifting communities through the support of programs committed to food, farming, arts, and environmental sustainability — we're sharing a conversation between Gjelina founder Fran Camaj and Partner/CEO Shelley Kleyn Armistead. In 2011, Gjelina Group founder Fran Camaj started peeking into local public schools and was alarmed to find such an immense lack of resources at the schools in the Venice community. A former LAUSD school teacher himself, Fran began volunteering locally at Westminster Elementary School as a teaching assistant. Fran encouraged Gjelina staff to do the same, dubbing the efforts the Gjelina Volunteer Program (GVP). Since then, the Gjelina team has volunteered at over 75 events and has spent more than 2,500 hours with students at various public schools, as well as with farmers at many nonprofit organizations and businesses, to transform the way people think about food.

In 2015, in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Venice, GVP began investing in and upgrading the Venice High School Learning Garden and established the Chef’s Club and the Gjelina Apprenticeship Program.

In 2016, the Gjelina Group began working with the LESGC via donations and connecting the group to Upstate Farms for food for their culinary education program.

In 2017, Venice High School chose to begin self-funding our program and hired former Gjelina Foundation director Angela Hughes on a full-time basis to run the garden and the Culinary Arts Program.

In 2017, Gjelina Volunteer Program became an official 501(3)(c) and launched as Gjelina Group Foundation.

Shelley Kleyn Armistead: Okay, I’m here with Fran. Talking about some memories on what is currently known as the Gjelina Group Foundation that started around 2010. What was the very first trigger that inspired you to start the Gjelina Volunteer Program, which is what it was then?

FC: Tamara [my wife] and I were looking at schools in the neighborhood we'd send our kids to.

SKA: So James [Fran’s son] was two? James was born in April 2008.

FC: So maybe in 2011 is when the GVP started… 2011, yeah.

SKA: So you started looking at schools?

FC: A year or two before James would be starting kindergarten, we started looking at schools.

SKA: And what was the first school you and Tamara go to, you're looking around...

FC: Westminster, on Abbot Kinney.

SKA: And somehow a conversation must have transpired in that moment around what that school potentially needed for you to want to participate?

FC: What it needed, and how I could help. Yes.

SKA: Did that come from something that was internally in you that you recognized? Or was that something that came as a result of a conversation with somebody in the school?

FC: It wasn't a conversation with anybody in the school. But maybe it had a little bit to do with having been a teacher myself in Los Angeles for a short period of time.

SKA: Where were you a teacher?

FC: At Will Rogers Middle School in Lawndale. And I remember the value of a teacher's aide, and of just another adult being in the classroom, even if for one hour a day, to divvy up the attention of, hopefully, only 15 kids, but maybe 20 or 25. It's very powerful in terms of the help for the students and the teacher.

SKA: And now our kids are in classrooms where there's 52 in a class.

It's funny, [my son] Isaac and I were having a conversation this morning. He has an English quiz today, and he was saying how, in moments, he finds his English teacher so inspirational. Because when she can turn his attention to him, he feels like he gains so much in his ability to understand the reading material, or what's expected of him. But that attention is so sporadic that the shortfalls of the amount of times it doesn't happen actually now negate the positive experiences he has. And this is the exact conversation we were having on the way to school today: what must it be like to want to make a difference in a classroom? Because you've chosen teaching, and you're presented with a class of 50 kids? How do you touch everybody consistently when everybody has different needs?

FC: And if you're losing the classroom, or if you're losing the kids, so to speak. Like I had five different periods, and I remember my second period had 17 kids in it just by accident, and that that class, not surprisingly, went very, very well. And there was another period that had like 34-35. And that was the most challenging. If I had an aide (and back then it was very rare) it was just immensely helpful if that another adult could take six to eight of those 35 kids. Then, those kids are getting one-on-one, or getting six-on-eight with that adult, and then it's very helpful. And I thought to be a good volunteer, we can get these bodies here.

SKA: And so historically many of the volunteers were either parents who have a particular moment of free time in their day, or they are college students. So you have this thought based on your own experiences, and then what's the next step for you?

FC: Reaching out to the principal at Westminster.

SKA: Do you remember who it was at the time?

FC: I don't. And I thought it would be pretty easy, just waltz in and volunteer in the class. But actually everybody had to get a TB test first.

SKA: And now I seem to remember that by the time we got to Venice High, we needed to do a background check. Which, of course, we totally respect — you don't want your children interacting with somebody who hasn't been vetted. Totally get that, of course. So then you get in touch with the principal.

FC: I told the principal that it was myself and a few other people who could volunteer — a few other people at the restaurant, or down the street who wanted to pick a day and go together. There were very modest goals at the very beginning. I said I could come in one day a week for an hour a day, and follow a teacher's lead or an assignment. You know, anything that a teacher wants me to do with any amount of kids, we'll do it. Can we get a schedule? Can we get a system going? And they received it very well. There were obstacles, you know, there were administrative things to do.

Robert was there with me as well — a teacher himself, from the neighborhood. He would relay the message to the staff and the team, and even had some friends from the neighborhood ended up signing up as well.

SKA: Which is the dream.

FC: This was the embryo, I think, of the Gjelina Group.

SKA: Do you remember any of your team members at Gjelina, those initial team members who jumped in? You mentioned Robert.

FC: Matt Pittinger took on the Westminster garden.

SKA: Oh, he went all in.

FC: And you might remember the young server, Dominique DeRouen, he was kind of a DJ, who created the artwork for the first GVP T-shirt. He collaborated with Robert on the design concept. It was an image of a man in trousers, standing on top of the Gjelina building.

SKA: We've got to get that artwork; that's rad. So you and a handful of the team come together to start in Westminster. And by the time I came on in 2014, which was three years later, my recollection of it is when Angela got involved, and strawberry jam and butter being made at Walgrove. It was that summer that we transitioned our boys into the local public system. And it was that whole interaction that made me look at Walgrove, where I was like, “Oh, this is rad, the company that I work with is in here.” And then in 2014, I have a photograph of Isaac's class inside Gjusta learning about bread. All standing around with dough in their hands.

FC: And I think the field trips started there, with kids from Broadway coming to the Gjelina kitchen.

SKA: So at some point you jumped from Westminster to Broadway. And I think it's because of Angela, because Zora [Angela’s daughter] was in Walgrove.

FC: Zora was in Walgrove. And then a year or two that went by, James started at Broadway, so then we started to focus attention on Broadway.

SKA: Got it. Okay. So that all happened pretty quickly, like within a three year period, you were at Westminster, Broadway...

FC: Westminster to Walgrove to Broadway.

SKA: So in a three year period, what started out of your personal experience, then also became personally driven by employees who had kids in the local public school system. In 2014, my memory of GVP is we planted some beds at Walgrove, we started engaging them about the garden, and planting lettuces…

FC: They had an outdoor area where it was just a wreck in terms of either a storage unit and/or the concrete was bad.

SKA: They dug it all up, they created a native garden, and then next to the native garden was a food garden with food beds.

FC: Yeah. I feel like they painted a mural, or maybe HAGOP painted something on the ground.

SKA: So that was another thing. So we first went in and planted greens next to the native garden, and we dug up all their internal raised beds inside the courtyard. And then when Jojo was in fifth grade, they took the fifth grade outdoor teaching classroom and planted and painted the concrete, and HAGOP did a thing too. So they cleaned up an old storage area so that they could have an outdoor teaching classroom for the fifth graders.

FC: That's right.

SKA: That same year, I remember us engaging Venice High, and they had given us three beds out of one hundred. Then Lindsay rolled into town and, being a former farmer said to me, let’s go and look at it. Before we knew it, we went from three beds to that entire one side, and then started moving over. And then as she picked up more sowing, it then evolved to Matt van Diepen taking over the sort of teaching aspect once she got the soil healthy and we'd done our volunteer sessions cleaning up the soil, and then that 2016-2017 year it became the full teaching program. And then in 2017, Angela was offered the position internally in the school based on the success of the program.