Above: Seth Wheels and Domnick Verrette stand in front of volunteers for The Leela Project on April 1. Photo by Marcella Martinez.
By Ravyn Salas
With trends easily spread through social media, getting swept up in the latest phenomenon feels inevitable. The Leela Project challenges that norm by adding philanthropic content to Instagram and Twitter platforms, sharing pictures of more than just flashy outfits and envy-inducing vacation snapshots.
The Leela Project, a nonprofit started in Corona, is building its following while showing the Inland Empire what happens when compassion meets the community.
What started organically as two friends handing out food to the homeless in their neighborhoods has become The Leela Project. Founded by Seth Wheels and Domnick Verrette, the nonprofit focuses on giving back to the community and showing marginalized people they matter. In its first year, The Leela Project has hosted events local to Corona, aiming to ease grim times.
Their first event was a success, feeding over 100 homeless people, and their latest event, held at Corona City Park, provided foster kids with school supplies, beach gear, and haircuts, courtesy of local barbers who volunteered their time, skills, and empathy.
Their last event focused on kids in the foster care system. In the years between his parents losing their parental rights and his grandmother gaining custody, co-founder Varette entered foster care.
"I was in the system actually," he shares. "I know what it’s like to have a social worker, I know what it’s like to have supervised visits.”
Verrette hopes that his life experience can show kids that there are alternatives to using detrimental outlets, like joining gangs or engaging in drug use to cope with challenging times, which research shows is likely.
Studies of youth who have left foster care have shown they are more likely than those in the general population to not finish high school, be unemployed, and be dependent on public assistance. Many find themselves in prison, homeless, or parents at an early age. The Leela Project can reduce these imminent societal issues.
Wheel, aware of the homeless population in the northern part of Corona, saw that the rain brought more of the homeless population into the streets when their encampments were flooded, bringing about their first event.
Dominick and Seth are clear about opening their arms to the ostracized members of their community, whether in foster care, struggling with homelessness, or facing addictions, financial instability, or any kind of abuse. Regardless of faith or background, their objective is helping those "rough around the edges."
"We just don’t want it to be specifically a Christian labeled organization because then that turns away someone who would want to help that doesn’t share the same beliefs," Wheel explains. "It doesn’t matter what religion or faith they are just as long as they have a good, helping heart."
The organization has plans to extend its service borders, showing the impact that donating time, resources, and empathy can make on people and ultimately creating a shift in culture.
Verrette believes what you give, you get, and both founders have been pleasantly surprised by all the help offered.
"Once you show people that you are making a difference, they are eager to help," Verrette shares.
The Leela Project is now busy planning their next event aimed at pampering single mothers. They are planning to host a dinner, with entertainment including spoken word poetry.