The Action Heroes

Their generosity is boundless and their belief in a better world unshakable. Five who make a difference

theessentials_masa_tJorja Leap
Adjunct professor at UCLA Department of Social Welfare Senior policy adviser on gangs and youth violence to Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca 

Thirty years ago Jorja Leap was a skinny young social worker roaming MLK Hospital.  She’s still wiry—Mike Cummings, a founder of the Grape Street Crips, could pick her up with one arm. They met in 2004, when she ditched a misguided conference on gangs for a field trip to Watts, where his Safe Passages program provides bodyguards for kids walking home. It’s Cummings’s redemption. The ghetto wars remind Leap of Bosnia and Kosovo—where she did a long stretch of crisis intervention—of the insanity of turf disputes. She tries to be a voice for those ensnared in the violence and to find for them a way out. Halfway into a five-year study that has her evaluating Homeboy Industries, she’s convinced that jobs are the answer.


theessentials_masa_tLulu Cerone
Seventh grader at the Archer School for Girls Founder, Lemon:AID Warriors 

By third grade Lulu Cerone was running lemonade stands to benefit charities,but she didn’t start Lemon:AID Warriors until after the Haiti earthquake struck, when she couldn’t get the images out of her head. At her former school, Wesley in North Hollywood, she challenged the student body to a fund-raising competition: girls against boys. In no time the boys had collected $1,000 and the girls $3,000. Her new cause is Blood:Water Mission, which builds wells in Africa. Its posters and flyers embellish her stands. Her 12th birthday was a philanthro-party; guests were asked to bring $20 instead of a present. She envisions how those dollars will fund a reservoir, sparing hundreds of children the daily slog to find water. She and her friends marched along Ventura Boulevard, lugging heavy bottles in comradeship. Cars honked and curious strangers approached them. After they learned of the Africans’ plight, some even left a donation.


theessentials_masa_tRenee Banton
Supervisor, New Directions women’s program VA-based nonprofit that provides housing and treatment for military veterans addicted to drugs and alcohol 

How are the Iraq veterans faring? Renee Banton isn’t seeing many yet. It will take time before those with demons hit bottom. She knows the drill. For 15 years Banton was a crack addict on skid row—she made it her full-time job, and she was good at it. For drug dollars she’d peddle batteries, stay tidy enough not to scare away the johns. One day Banton promised her mother she’d stop. She was a Vietnam-era staff sergeant before the slide, and the VA was her best hope. The program that saved her has become her calling. Banton can take the addicts’ tantrums and address their despair. But she’s got a new devil: breast cancer. Eight rounds of chemo so far. If she were still on the nickel, she’d be dead. She tells the women that.


theessentials_masa_tNan Whitfield
Public Defender, Airport Courthouse 2011 L.A. County Bar Association Defense Lawyer of the Year 

Nan Whitfield takes the cases that make other lawyers shudder. Whitfield’s definition of success isn’t necessarily victory—it’s that for one minute in the miserable process her client thinks someone gives a damn. Twenty- five years in the trenches and private practice still has no appeal. Don’t the indigent deserve as good a lawyer as the rich? Her epiphany came three years into law school, when she approached a public defender on a relative’s behalf. The woman’s sloppiness, her rudeness, galled Whitfield, who thought, “I can do her job ten times better.” Her daughter, Taylor, means the world to Whitfield, but having a traditional family was never in the cards. The God she talks to every Sunday at St. Monica’s Catholic Church was saving her for this: protecting his poor.

theessentials_masa_tBeverly Gonzalez
Fourth-grade teacher at Santa Fe Elementary School, Baldwin Park a 2011 California Teacher of the Year 

This is how Beverly Gonzalez feels about teaching. If a child tumbles into a well, the police, the fire department, and the community rush to the rescue. A student struggling in her classroom deserves the same attention. Her pupils are Latino and Asian and poor; 81 percent qualify for free or cost-reduced meals. You wouldn’t know it from the state tests. Last year her class scored better in English than fourth graders at a Beverly Hills elementary and as high in math as a school in Palos Verdes. The belief that anything is possible permeates her—a few kids call her Mom. In the wake of budget cuts, she draws on the memory of how brilliantly Itzhak Perlman performed after breaking a string on his violin. “I know I can still make beautiful music,” she says. “It needs to be my attitude.”

Photographs by Gregg Segal

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