Congresswoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove, 2nd from right, poses with Celia and Joe Ward-Wallace and their team members. (Lila Brown/L.A. Sentinel)

The owners and founders of South LA Café Joe and Celia Ward-Wallace were surprised with a $850,000 check presented by Congresswoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove. 

The presentation occurred during the South LA Community Foundation’s fourth annual Mental Health Block Party held at Browning Blvd., and Western Avenue on May 25.  The funds will benefit the organization’s South LA Community Resilience Center. 

The South LA Community Resilience Center Project is one of 15 community projects that Representative Kamlager-Dove secured a total of $12.4 million for through FY24 government funding legislation. The funding will be instrumental in the South LA Community Foundation’s efforts to expand their charitable contributions.  

 “Although our business is what started this work, the money is actually going to our foundation,” said Joe Ward-Wallace, who resides in South Central and was motivated by local community members that he could provide greater impact as a non-profit. “It started with just my credit card, and it just turned into this.”  

Joe Ward-Wallace retired as a firefighter yet devots 80 to 100 hours per week in managing both his business and the philanthropic endeavor. He plans to continue enhancing the foundation’s infrastructure, which includes hiring more staff so he can reduce his workload and enjoy retirement. 

The couple’s ultimate goal is to establish a new center to serve as a hub for economic and community development activities including resilience programming to help surrounding neighborhoods cope with climate-related environmental and societal disasters.  

The center will also function as a food distribution site and an educational programming hub offering workshops and panels on community preparedness, climate awareness, food nutrition, green technology, circular economy, sustainability, and economic empowerment.  

State Senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, L.A. Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Tim Sweeney, executive director of WIN LA were also in attendance to praise the Ward-Wallaces, who opened the first South LA Café in November 2019, less than three months before the economic shutdown resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Their volunteerism resulted in the Ward-Wallaces providing free groceries and food delivery services to area residents with restricted access and limited mobility. To date, it is estimated the married couple has been able to feed more than 200,000 people with over 2.1 million pounds of food through weekly grocery bag giveaways. 

“It is remarkable that we have a small business that is bringing other partners to the table and multiplying our power and resources. I am amazed at all the work they do. We’ve got to protect and support our small businesses in the State of California,” said Smallwood-Cuevas before highlighting proposed bills and budget cuts that may affect access to quality food and healthcare.  

“The largest chunk coming out of the budget cuts will be Health and Human Services if we don’t stand up and do something about it. Cutting CalWORKS, food subsidies, cutting [Housing Assistance Program] HAP, not just the homelessness and housing services, but all the wrap around services. $1 billion is slated to be cut.”  

She went on to stress the importance of the South LA Community Foundation. “We need the foundation and our service organizations. We also need our neighbors and residents to stand up and speak out against these cuts, and we need you to do it now. This budget has to be balanced by June 15th.” 

The Mental Health Block Party offered attendees grocery giveaways, healthy cooking demonstrations, health screenings, resource providers, music, yoga and painting for art therapy. 

“We’ve got big work to do in our community for making it okay to get help,” urged Harris-Dawson to block party goers for destigmatizing seeking mental health services.  

“Our community has experienced much trauma, and we need to recover from it, so we don’t pass it on to our children and grandchildren.”