Growing up, Naomie “Morenita” Coronado spent a lot of time with her mother and grandmother traveling back and forth from her home in Hawthorne, California to Mexico and Guatemala. Together, the trio would pack clothes they’d outgrown and items they no longer had use for to give to those in need in the southern countries, often making stops at farms along the way to distribute goods to farmworkers. Helping – her grandmother would tell her progeny – is the responsibility of everyone who is privileged enough to do so. The maxim inspired her daughter, Alma, a lifelong activist, to start a service-driven student club when she was in high school, and it’s what prompted her granddaughter, Morenita, to create Lets.Give, a grassroots nonprofit organization run by and for youth to serve their communities through volunteer opportunities.
With 100 volunteers throughout Southern California, Lets.Give provides young people with three types of initiatives each month: community, events like street feedings and donation drives that cater to the needs of locals; global, offering disaster relief and support to those in need throughout the US and across the world; and culture, creating spaces for joy and healing through the arts and uplifting the works of local creatives.
“I was always putting together a blueprint, my entire life, of what I wanted Lets.Give to be,” Morenita, who is Guatemalan-Puerto Rican and acts as the organization’s CEO, tells me. “One day, my mom called me out. She said, ‘What are you doing? You’re not doing anything.’ And I said, ‘All right, bet’ and got to work to bring the blueprint to life.”
With the help of her close friends, Morenita, then 16 years old, founded Lets.Give in November 2015. Its first event, “Blankies and Sammiches,” took place a month later. The group mobilized 50 young people, who collected blankets, socks and coats and prepared turkey and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cookies and water, to feed, clothe, and talk with nearly 200 homeless individuals on Skid Row.
Since then, the nonprofit, chartered in 2016, has more than doubled in size. The entirely volunteer-based organization is made up of a four-member executive team, 62 official members, known as directors, assistant directors and commissioners, who were interviewed and approved by the leaders to take on decision-making roles in community, global or culture initiatives, marketing, hospitality, data management and consciousness-raising, and 100 participants who help bring the service projects to life on the ground.
“Kids want to be activists and want to do this work, but they don’t know how.”
Self-described as “millennial soldiers,” Lets.Give is run and operated by high school- and college-aged individuals between 14 and 27 years old. Together, they say, they are fighting the stereotype that young people are narcissistic and creating an inclusive movement of action and awareness.
“Kids want to be activists and want to do this work, but they don’t know how. They don’t know how to utilize their own power, and, a lot of times, adults, especially with kids in the ‘hood, tell us we don’t have power and can’t organize or mobilize as a unit. So for me, it was important for Lets.Give to be for and by the youth because we have that momentum to mobilize on a grander scale. We have so much power and energy not being utilized,” Morenita, 19, says.
Lets.Give is proof of the force, potential and vision of young people of color. From donation drives that provide impoverished students with back-to-school supplies, clothes, and haircuts to cleaning up and revitalizing forgotten neighborhoods, teenagers are taking charge on issues their elected officials disregard. As a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy coming out of Washington causes trauma for undocumented children, Lets.Give has held quinceañeras for immigrant youth and self-love face painting events for the kids of farmworkers. And while President Donald Trump attributed his slow and substandard response to aid Puerto Rico after Hurricane María to the island’s location in a “big water, ocean water,” the young adults managed to charter a plane to the island with 49,000 pounds of supplies, self-delivering them to the people, and return months later to distribute $5,000 in cash cards to locals.
“Not in million years would I have thought I’d be able to give back to my community because of how little I can give to myself,” Maritza Cruz, Lets.Give’s 19-year-old director of community, says. “When I was younger, I would say, ‘When I’m rich, I will give to this, this and this, but I’m poor, so I can’t give anything.’ But now I see that, even though we don’t get paid and don’t personally have much money to give, through our community we are able to give to another community.”
As full-time and part-time students who often work paid jobs in addition to the weekly 20-to-40 hours they dedicate to Lets.Give, the collective is intentional about creating an environment where they are also helping themselves. By leading meetings, which take place in Morenita’s living room, with group meditation sessions and ice breakers that allow members to discuss how they are feeling, Cruz says volunteers are able to change themselves before they begin devising how they’ll change the world.
“It’s a family,” high school senior Savannah Perdon, who’s an associate director of community, says. “Whenever I walk into the CEO’s house, I feel warmth, like when I walk into my family’s house. It’s reassuring and a safe space for all of us.”
And that, Morenita tells me, is her biggest dream come true: seeing joy, gratitude and love in the faces of those helping and being helped.