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Maria Shriver

My Project: Dignity For The Homeless

Image: Doniece Sandoval
Lava Mae's founder Doniece Sandoval. Kena Frank Photography / Courtesy Lava Mae

There are a multitude of modern conveniences that we now take for granted, but perhaps foremost among them is our access to water and sanitation. For the homeless population, that convenience -- the simple act of taking a shower -- is still an all too rare luxury.

Doniece Sandoval, a former marketing executive living in San Francisco -- a city whose homeless population numbers more than 6,000 people per the last city count -- decided to tackle that problem. She launched Lava Mae, a non-profit which transformed a decommissioned city bus into a bathroom on wheels for the homeless.

That bus, Lava Mae’s first, launched in June of this year thanks to money raised through the crowdfunding site IndieGoGo. Since then, Lava Mae has provided hundreds of showers to the homeless, and now, the non-profit is fundraising to transform a second bus (each retrofit costs $75,000), which will enable them to provide a total 25,000 showers a year.

Key to Lava Mae’s success, has been a spirit of collaboration and cooperation, and its efforts have been supported by both the private sector (Google, Kohler and Dr. Bronner’s have all contributed), and a host of local government agencies.

Here, Sandoval shares the compassion she has seen in others, the graciousness and gratitude of those Lava Mae serves, and explains how her tenacity (and supportive husband) have helped power Lava Mae’s success.

What motivated you to get involved in this work?

Multiple things shaped this journey: 1) moving back to San Francisco after being in New York for three years and being shocked at how the number of people living on the streets had seemingly exploded in that short time, 2) living in a neighborhood transformed by gentrification, which meant that many of the original residents were forced to move from their homes to their cars and then the street because they couldn’t afford the soaring rents, and 3) passing a young homeless woman on the street who was crying that she’d never be clean and wondering what her options were; when I did the research I was appalled at the lack of showers and toilets available. I was also mildly obsessed with food trucks and thought that if you could put gourmet food on wheels and take it anywhere, why not showers and toilets?

What have you been most surprised to learn?

How much people care. Given the tremendous amount of news showcasing man’s inhumanity to man, I’ve been really happy to learn that most people are truly compassionate but, often, a little unsure how to help. We have people pass by our bus everyday who stop to offer money, toiletries, time etc. It’s inspiring.

Given the tremendous amount of news showcasing man’s inhumanity to man, I’ve been really happy to learn that most people are truly compassionate but, often, a little unsure how to help.

What do you most want people to know?

That those experiencing homelessness are just like you and me; they are human beings with hopes, dreams and needs. There are still too many people who believe that the homeless are bums; that people choose to be homeless. That’s just not true. Not one of the people we have provided with a shower would elect to be homeless. Sleeping on the street, not knowing if you’ll make it to a food service in time, trying to stay clean – that’s no one’s idea of a good life.

Inside the city bus Lava Mae retrofitted to be a mobile bathroom for the homeless. Kena Frank Photography / Courtesy Lava Mae

Who or what has made the greatest impression on you during your involvement?

The graciousness and gratitude of the people we serve. It’s really humbling to have someone thank you profusely for something so simple; something that the rest of us take for granted.

It’s really humbling to have someone thank you profusely for something so simple; something that the rest of us take for granted.

What has been the hardest part of this work, or how has this work challenged you?

At times getting this project off the ground made me feel like Sisyphus; that ball just kept rolling back down the hill. Thankfully, I had many, many supporters. Lava Mae is all about partnership; we believe that collaboration is the new competition and that’s what’s made the difference between success and failure for us.

How has this work changed you?

I’m more tenacious than ever. I see “no” as just the opening salvo in a longer conversation, and I’ve become more grateful than ever for my family and my husband who has been integral to making Lava Mae a reality.

What goal do you have for the next 12 months?

In September, we launched an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to retrofit a second bus, which we plan to have on the streets by February. We’re also looking for corporate support to retrofit two more buses by July 2015. Once we have 4 buses on the road, we can offer 50,000 showers per year.

For more information and inspiration visit MariaShriver.com