By Rob Kuznia for Giant Arrow
Sometimes, instead of finding our calling, our calling finds us.
This is how it happened with Jerry Ayala.
Jerry is the director of a gargantuan warehouse in South Los Angeles for Shelter Partnership, an organization serving hundreds of nonprofit agencies that attend to the multitudes of L.A.’s homeless.
Most days you can find him zipping about on his forklift, which is adorned with a tiny American flag that flaps in the airstream.
His rock-steady presence in the Shelter Partnership warehouse located in the industrial city of Bell has helped provide tens of thousands of homeless people with clothing, Christmas presents and shelter for 27 years and counting.
Jerry is quick to say he feels grateful to be a part of this nonprofits’ nonprofit.
As warehouse director, Jerry has always been behind-the-scenes. But that changed somewhat a couple years ago when Shelter Partnership started a program where groups can come to the warehouse and fold and box clothes for shelters.
“I love this place, it’s my second home,” he said on a recent morning, standing inside the cavernous 108,000-square-foot space, as a group of students from UCLA boxed clothes nearby.
The warehouse, whose interior is larger than two football fields end to end, houses neatly organized rows of pallets straining under the weight of donated toys, clothing, appliances and toiletries. “I like putting my mind to work – it’s a challenge.”
Shelter Partnership was founded in 1985, as the issue of homelessness was gaining visibility in Los Angeles County.
One of its primary missions is to solicit large-scale donations of merchandise from donors such as Ross Dress for Less, Mattel and other big businesses, and to ensure that the items are delivered to the people and agencies most in need.
To effectively do this, Shelter Partnership needs a warehouse, and to effectively run a warehouse, it needs a warehouse director. But Executive Director Ruth Schwartz, who founded the organization, says Jerry is more like the organization’s co-founder.
Jerry’s path to Shelter Partnership was circuitous. In 1989, he was four years into a job as a valet attendant for a network of parking structures in downtown Los Angeles when a woman whose car he parked every day asked if he’d like a new job.
The woman was Ruth Schwartz, and at the time Shelter Partnership was less than four years old. Jerry was taken aback.
“I didn’t know anything about warehouses,” he said, though he suspects Ruth noticed his dependability and friendly (if shy) nature.
Learning how to run the warehouse was a sink-or-swim experience for Jerry.
“They dropped me off, and I said, ‘What am I going to do here?’” he remembers. “I got really nervous.”
His first item of business was to break in his horse – the forklift. It was an intimidating prospect, as he’d never operated such a machine.
To learn, Jerry observed. He went to another warehouse, and – trying to be inconspicuous – stood in the parking lot, watching workers as they darted about on their forklifts.
Back at his warehouse, when he finally mustered the courage to fire up his own forklift, he promptly drove it into the trailer of a semi-truck and got stuck between some pallets. But he maneuvered it free, and soon enough, he was forklifting like a pro.
A native of Guatemala, Jerry came to the United States as a refugee in 1984, during the violent peak of that country’s horrific civil war. At the time he was about 19, but he doesn’t care to discuss it.
“That’s very hard to talk about,” he said. “Bad memories.”
Jerry first lived with relatives on a ranch near Houston, Texas. He enjoyed the bucolic setting, replete with horses and turkeys.
“In the countryside, you can see the stars.”
But Jerry was restless. He traveled by train all over the US – New York, San Francisco, Vegas. He came to Los Angeles around 1985. He decided to stay.
In search of a job, he initiated conversations with strangers who might help. One day, he stepped into a liquor store in downtown Los Angeles to purchase a soda when he struck up a conversation with a man from Nicaragua. The man was in the parking-lot business, and asked Jerry if he’d be interested in working as an attendant.
The next thing Jerry knew, he was parking cars as a valet in uniform.
“I didn’t know how to drive a stick,” he said. “I had to learn.”
He enjoyed the job, but the work came with certain dangers. Once, a man in a snazzy suit and tie flashed a gun and demanded the keys to a Ford Escort. When the car’s owner came to pick it up, Jerry was apologetic.
“I had to tell her I had to hand the keys over to this guy,” Jerry remembers. “She said, ‘Jerry you did the right thing. You’re not going to die for my car — I have insurance.’”
Another time, he witnessed a man break into a UPS truck with a crowbar in broad daylight.
“An hour, two hours later I was sitting. He came, showed me a gun: ‘You didn’t see anything right?’ I said, ‘No I didn’t.’”
But these occasional occupational hazards aren’t why he decided to take the new job. It wasn’t even about money: When Jerry’s parking-lot boss learned of his job opportunity at the warehouse, he offered a pay hike.
“I said it’s not about the money — it’s the challenge.”
After learning how to operate the forklift, Jerry had to spearhead the process of converting the building into a functional warehouse for Shelter Partnership.
Decades before, in 1939, the warehouse had gone up as part of a military base established to hasten production of weapons and tanks in the run-up to World War II.
The base closed in 1963, but the FBI and DEA later began using the warehouse as a storage facility. (More recently, in 2015, it was a filming location for a goofball zombie flick called “Freaks of Nature.”)
When Jerry first laid eyes on the vast interior, it was filled with makeshift partitions made of chain-link fencing and plywood. He tore it all down with his forklift, and gave the materials away to scrap collectors.
These are the kinds of challenges he loves.
Once, he and a couple of volunteers were faced with a mega challenge: a shipment of 100,000 pairs of Guess jeans had arrived, but the triangular label needed to be torn off all of the back pockets. (To ensure they would not be returned or resold.)
“We tried everything, we tried a knife – everything,” he said.
On a whim, Jerry took a pair of nearby pliers and gripped a label in the pincers. It peeled like a banana. He went to Home Depot and bought a bunch more – problem solved.
Jerry is grateful because he has two homes – one in Universal City he shares with his wife of 22 years, Nora, and the warehouse.
Not long ago, a woman who’d once been homeless – and who occasionally helped out in the warehouse – returned to tell Jerry she’d turned her life around.
“She got off the street,” he said. “That was a good experience.”
When he’s not working, Jerry likes to “chill out,” and tend to his garden. But even then, “my mind is here.”
For more information about Shelter Partnership, or to make a donation visit www.shelterpartnership.org.