The Gjelina Group Foundation: Our Past, Our Present, Our Future
A conversation between Fran Camaj and Shelley Kleyn Armistead
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 in, around 2010?
Fran Camaj: Probably 2010, yeah.
2010. And what was the very first trigger that inspired you to start the Gjelina Volunteer Program, which is what it was then?
Tamara [my wife] and I were looking at schools in the neighborhood that we'd send our kids to.
So James [Fran’s son] was two? James was born in April 2008.
So maybe in 2011 is when the GVP started… 2011, yeah.
So you started looking at schools?
A year or two before James would be starting kindergarten, we started looking at schools.
Okay. And what was the first school you and Tamara go to, you're looking around...
Westminster, on Abbot Kinney.
Westminster on Abbot Kinney, yes.
And somehow a conversation must have transpired in that moment around what that school potentially needed for you to want to participate?
What it needed, and how I could help. Yes.
Okay. And 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 within the school?
It wasn't a conversation with anybody in the school. And maybe it had a little bit to do with having been a teacher myself in Los Angeles for a short period of time.
And where were you a teacher in Los Angeles?
At Will Rogers Middle School in Lawndale. And I remember the value of a teacher's aide, and the value of just another adult being in the classroom, even if it's 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.
And now our kids are in classrooms where there's 52 in a class.
This... I don't know a school with 52.
Pali High and Venice High, I think.
52... if there's only one teacher, that's just obnoxious.
It's funny, Isaac and I were having this conversation this morning about, he was saying, 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 on to him, he feels like he gains so much in his ability to understand the reading matter, or what's expected of him, he said, but it's so sporadic that he was like, the shortfalls of the amount of times it doesn't happen actually now negates the positive experiences he has. And this is the exact conversation we were having on the way to school today, which is, 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? In this case, in his class, it's 40. How do you touch everybody consistently when everybody has different needs?
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, so to speak, 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 would have had an aide, and I want to say that back then, maybe very rarely, a volunteer or somebody did come in, very rarely, it was just immensely helpful. Just for that 35. If that one adult could take six to eight of those 35 kids. Now those six to eight 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.
And so many of the volunteers historically are either parents who have a particular moment of free time in their day, and college students. So you have this thought based on your own experiences, and then what's the next step for you?
Reaching out to the principal at Westminster.
Do you remember who it was at the time?
I don't remember who it was, or getting through to them and finding out procedure. They certainly welcomed us. And I thought it would be pretty easy, just waltz in and volunteer in the class. And now it's actually coming to me, everybody had to get a TB test first.
And now I seem to remember, 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.
I told the principal, it's myself and a few other people. And I was just kind of making up a few other people, a few other people at the restaurant, down the street, we wanted to get together and pick one day. There were very modest goals at the very beginning. And I certainly, in terms of my time and committing my time, I made the request to, you know, being very modest: I'll come in one day a week, and for one hour a day, and one specific classroom, 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.
Sure. And how did you take it back to the team at Gjelina? Do you remember the first conversation you had?
I was talking to Robert about it. Robert likes the idea - Robert's a good man, neighborhood man, family man...
A good teacher himself.
A good teacher himself. He was there with me as well. And then he would relay that message to the staff and the team, and we had some people and staffers do it, and even had some people in the neighborhood as well, like friends of mine in the neighborhood ended up signing up as well.
Which is the dream.
I think that's the embryo. This was the embryo, I think, of the Gjelina Group.
Do you remember any of your team members at Gjelina, those initial team members who jumped in? You mentioned Robert.
Matt Pittinger did.
Oh, he's a great teacher.
Matt Pittinger took on the Westminster garden thing.
Oh, he went all in.
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.
The GVP T-shirt, I remember walking in and seeing either Judy or Nicole Rucker wearing a GVP T-shirt and thinking, "Oh, they designed a T-shirt around themselves" because there was a female on it.
Oh, no, that was the second version with the female.
What was the first one?
An image of a man in trousers, standing on top of imagery of the Gjelina GTA building.
Never seen that. Where's that image?
I mean, it's on T-shirts. Like, I bet... Israel, I see him wear it from time to time.
We've got to get that, we've gotta get that artwork. I mean, that's rad.
I feel like you've seen it, you had to have seen it sometime. Maybe I'm doing a bad job.
I totally remember the woman, and in my mind that was the GVP T-shirt because I remember Vyas wearing that one a lot too.
That was version two, designed by Robert with artwork from a photo of his.
It's the classic, that image exists a lot out in the world. Okay, 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, Angela is involved and there's strawberry jam and butter being made at...
No... two things, I remember, butter and jam being made at Walgrove. So that's like in the first six months of me starting. I remember that because 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. Like all standing around with dough in their hands, and I feel like Angela was the person who had the sort of an umbrella in the front, herding people behind her.
Yeah, she probably spearheaded that. And I think the field trips started there. I think kids from Broadway came to Gjelina, walked through the Gjelina kitchen.
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.
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.
Got it. Okay. So that all happened pretty quickly, like within a three year period, you were at Westminster, Broadway...
Westminster to Walgrove to Broadway.
So all the elementary schools with the exception of Coeur d'Alene.
Well, that's the middle school.
No, Coeur d'Alene's elementary.
Oh, yeah, of course it is.
You had a child there.
I certainly did.
So in a three year period, what started out from 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…
They had like an outdoor area where I think there were some before and after pictures like...
...of beds, yeah.
Not just beds, but I feel like there was an area where it was just a wreck in terms of either a storage unit and/or the concrete was bad.
They dug it all up, they created a native garden, and then next to the native garden was a food garden, like food beds.
Yeah. I feel like they painted the ground, a mural, maybe HAGOP painted something on the ground.
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.
And that all happened, and so he was in fifth grade in 2015-2016. Then at the 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.
Okay, so hopefully that's enough to come up with a little pre-timeline before the sort of big ambition, before we open up what our big ambitions are as a public charity. Anything else you can remember? Because 90% of the time when I press pause or stop, Rafa comes up with another 16 sentences I wish I'd recorded, or Pedro does as well.
Oh, no, I think that's great.
All proceeds from Gjournals go directly to The Gjelina Group Foundation, a 501c3 registered public charity dedicated to uplifting communities through the support of programs committed to food, farming, arts, and environmental sustainability.