A few years ago, a small group of volunteers came together with a common goal: empowering women affected by substance abuse, homelessness and domestic violence.
The group of seven San Diego County women, most of them Latina and in their 20 or early 30s, are now known as “La Chula Crew.” The organization partners with other organizations in San Diego County and across the U.S.-Mexico border to provide clothing, toiletries, bedding, diapers and other essentials to women in need.
“I have gone through domestic violence, assault and addiction recovery … this is all very personal for me,” said Chelsea Muniz, 28, executive director of La Chula Crew. She started the group in National City in 2017. It become a nonprofit in 2019.
She said it was healing for her to talk to others with similar experiences. Together, she said, they broke down barriers of shame, guilt and stigma.
“They’re like a safe haven,” said Serena Mafnas, 29, a volunteer who joined the original seven in 2018. “They create a safe space where women are not afraid to talk to them.”
Now, the group is looking to expand. Its members host monthly gatherings — hip hop in the park and art therapy classes, for example — where people can drop off donations. And its organizers are seeking to add to a growing list of partners locally and beyond, including Casa de Esperanza — based in St. Paul, Minn. — a resource center organizations working with Latina women and children experiencing domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.
“I always say, you’re helping yourself as you’re helping others. It’s a big blessing for me to be able to help people in the community and give the love and support that I didn’t always feel I had,” Muniz said.
In addition to working primarily with women in San Diego County, La Chula also provides resources and essential items to migrants in Tijuana who are seeking asylum in the U.S.
The group’s director of development, Arlene Rodriguez, said she got involved with La Chula Crew in 2018 after attending a business workshop sponsored by its members. A daughter of immigrants, she is responsible for coordinating local partnerships and collaborating with other outreach organizations.
“I’ve always been around organizations that help with the immigrant situation,” said Rodriguez, 32. “It really touches my heart. It was second nature for me to jump in and help lead the organization.”
Becky Diaz, 29, La Chula Crew’s outreach coordinator, said she was drawn to the organization because she had experienced bouts of poverty when she was growing up. As an adult, she wanted to try to make things better for people with similar experiences.
“I joined because it’s going to help someone,” she said. “Maybe somebody sees the events and they don’t need (resources) but they know somebody that does. It’s just about helping everyone in the community.”
One person who recently received a helping hand, was Marcella Esquivel, a mother of three who was experiencing homelessness. Because of a change in her housing situation, Esquivel and her family were sleeping in their car while waiting for rapid rehousing. And then another setback hit: her car broke down.
She said she reached out to the La Chula Crew and within a week was able to get her car fixed.
“I was at a brick wall and as soon as I reached out to them, they greeted me with a hug,” Esquivel said. “It’s truly a blessing to be involved with people who are genuine.”
Social worker Jacqueline Lopez, 28, became the volunteer coordinator just six months ago after going through a separation. She said she believed the best way for her to heal was to “pour her heart out into the community.” She helps collect donations and distribute them to the people the organization serves.
“I’m hoping this shows (the community) we are there for one another,” she said. “Although we needed a pandemic to show us … that we could really rally together no matter how bad (expletive) got.”
The La Chula Crew accepts monetary donations via its website. The nonprofit also accepts donations of money or items, including clothes, diapers and hand sanitizer, at its monthly events and workshops assault and domestic violence. Several events are planned for July and are posted to the group’s website and shared on social media.
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