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PhiLAnthropist Interview: Zach and Justin of LA's 'Karma Project'

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Karma Project's Zach Istrin at Shane's Inspiration. Photo courtesy of Zach Istrin.

While many not-for-profits are struggling when it comes to funding and donations, one more positive fallout of this little recession is an increase in volunteer hours. LA's Zach Istrin and Justin Bird are perfect examples of this wave of volunteerism. With more time on their hands, they decided to start volunteering, a lot. With hopes of raising awareness and motivating other young people, they began writing about all their experiences on their blog, the LA Karma Project. So for anyone who has been thinking about donating some of their time, the LA Karma Project is a great starting point for reading about some first-hand experiences with different LA organizations, such as Project Angel Food and Shane's Inspiration. Zach and Justin were kind enough to answer some of our questions and offer up some good can even join them on one of their volunteer adventures.

Where do each of you live in LA? How old are you guys? Are you LA natives?

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Zach: Both of us live in Sherman Oaks. I am 26, Justin is 24; both of us are natives. 

What inspired the Karma Project? Where did the idea come from?

Z: Work was quiet at the time, and we were sitting at the Coach and Horse on Sunset drinking $3 PBR tall boys. We felt that we could be doing great things, but didn’t know what. After a little brainstorming it popped into our heads. Hey, why don’t we go out and volunteer, blog about it, and try to raise awareness? We figured in today’s economy there are a lot of people around our age working part time or not working at all, but want to be doing something. Maybe if they actually hear about some experiences, and see some pictures they won’t think it is too bad, and realize you can actually have a really good time. Worst case scenario, no one reads the blog, but we still did a bunch of volunteering, and had some great experiences. 

Had you done a lot of volunteer work prior to the creation of the Karma Project?

Z: We had only really volunteered in high school when we were required to in order to graduate. Justin volunteered helping kids after school with homework, and I volunteered at a nursing home. We both enjoyed our time, but it never really clicked that we could do it because we wanted to, rather than because we had to.

Is volunteering your full-time "job"? What else do you guys do?

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Z: Justin runs a safety group with his grandmother, offering safety information to the construction industry (Associated Builders Safety Group); he also teaches an after school science class to elementary school kids. Justin races motocross in his spare time. 

I work doing freelance art department work props, set dressing, and art directing. Work is very hit or miss. Right now it happens to be a little more miss than hit. I like to go out and shoot pictures around town. I go to a lot of museums and outdoor events.

You cover your experiences extensively on the website, and even rank them based on fun, physical level and ease of sign-up. Can you give a quick recap of what you have done so far? Highlights?

Justin: Our goal was to try as many different types of volunteering as possible. We have delivered meals to people who are unable to go shopping or get food for themselves’ through Meals on Wheels and Project Angel Food. We have also prepared the food to be delivered for Project Angel Food clients. We refurbished wheelchairs at Wheels for Humanity, spent time playing with children with various levels of disabilities at Shane’s Inspiration, and put together care packages for soldiers at Project Gratitude. We also helped out at AIDS Project L.A.'s annual S.T.A.G.E fundraiser. 

J: One of the many highlights in my opinion has been with Shane’s Inspiration. It is so rewarding to play with the kids and you can tell how much they enjoy being able to get around on playgrounds that are accessible to them. Project Angel Food was another one of my highlights. Preparing the meals, while it can be a bit tiring, is a lot of fun. The other volunteers are great, and the people who work there are really nice.

What has been the greatest and most unexpected lesson?

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J: There is kind of this thought that volunteering is boring, or kind of takes away from other “more important stuff” you could be doing. No one seems to want to volunteer, especially younger people. After the first experience at Project Angel Food, I realized that besides helping others, volunteering is a lot of fun, and a great way to spend time hanging out with friends and to meet new interesting people. 

What has been the most memorable volunteer experience?

J: The most memorable experience has to be helping out at Shane’s Inspiration. The other places we volunteered at we helped out kind of second hand to the cause. You don’t actually work face to face with those in need. Delivering meals you kind of interact but it was a “Hi. How are you? Bye.” conversation. At Shane’s Inspiration you interact first hand with the children and their families and you can really see how much it means to them. They have such a great time. 

Biggest challenge?

J: The biggest challenge is usually signing up. Unfortunately some of the places aren’t very organized and it seems like it would be easier to get a paying position than just lending a hand. Also, not coming back with a sarcastic remark when one of the people who run the organization gets upset about something you weren’t informed about because they are unorganized. I guess I could always just speak my mind, I’m volunteering. What’s the worst that can happen, they fire me? 

What resources are most useful for finding good volunteer opportunities?

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J: The Internet has obviously been a great help, but word of mouth from friends and family seems to be the best. We wish more people would send us messages on our site with suggestions on places to go. Usually once you are at one place and talking to the other volunteers they will tell you of a couple other great places to help out at. 

What is the goal of the Karma Project?

Z: Our goal with this project is to hopefully spread around some good energy. So many people, so much of the time in this town sit around worrying about things that can be pretty inconsequential. I feel that 90% of people truly have good intentions and want to help out.

If you can coerce some people to just volunteer once at a place that matches their own personality and flare, I think you can change volunteering from a chore to something enjoyable.

There was a famous scholar over 2,000 years ago, Rabbi Hillel, who sums it up, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” 

What is the biggest myth about volunteering? What keeps people from getting out there and getting involved?

Z: I think the biggest myth is, “I don’t know where to volunteer.” There are so many places! You just have to step out of your shell a bit and try something new. With our website we hope to make that easier. You can come with us to an event, or read up and become a little familiar before you start.

Also, I don’t think it is always the average Joe, or Jane’s fault that there isn’t enough volunteering going on. A lot of the time people want to volunteer but they have to jump through so many hoops just to be able to help out. Tons of paperwork or just a really inefficient organization can make it more difficult to volunteer. It can be pretty ridiculous at times.

Both Justin and I feel a little conflicted pointing out times when things were really unorganized or when we were treated poorly at a volunteer organization. However, we also feel it is our duty to point these sorts of things out. We don’t want someone to come to our site, find a place to volunteer, and end up having a bad time. This might leave an unpleasant taste in their mouth and make them less inclined to volunteer again. Our criticisms could also be used by the various volunteer groups to help improve their programs and make them more appealing to volunteers. 

LA has the best...

Z: I want to say something really deep like museums or diversity….but it is definitely food. I love the food here. We are such a mish mossh of people and styles that you can have pretty much any type of cuisine you could ask for not to mention some cool hybrids. I am also a huge fan of Mexican food. Other places just don’t do it right. 

: Traffic? A wide variety of things to do. There is something for everyone. It’s pretty nice. 

Everyone in LA should know about...

J: Thursday nights at the Barrel, in Sherman Oaks. Kelly is the best bartender and there is some crazy shuffle board action going on. 

Z: L.A. Karma Project…shameless plug…if P. Diddy was promoting L.A. Karma Project he would have said the same thing. Only difference is, Justin and I aren’t also coming out with an L.A. Karma Project Cologne, L.A. Karma Project Energy Drink, and L.A. Karma Project Adult Diapers. 

Favorite late night dining...

Z: Probably Swinger’s. I am always a sucker for their peanut butter and banana shake, no matter what time of night. 

J: Besides left over’s... Dupar’s. 

And anything else you feel like sharing...

J: Go out and volunteer. It really is a lot of fun and you’ll feel good about yourself when you’re done.

Photos courtesy of Zach Istrin and Justin Bird, used with permission.