Serving Larchmont Village, Hancock Park, and the Greater Wilshire neighborhoods of Los Angeles since 2011.

Wilshire Rotary Tree Lot Closed Until Next Year, Impact Continues

Wilshire Rotary Christmas tree is now closed after having sold over 3,000 trees. But the impact of the lot on the lives of those who work there continues. (photo from Instagram)

Earlier this week, the Wilshire Rotary closed its Christmas tree lot, having sold all the trees for the season. That’s more than 3,000 trees, wreaths, boughs of garland, snowmen, and reindeer made from tree stumps. All the proceeds from the lot support the community service programs of the Wilshire Rotary, like Snow Day on Larchmont, and the international service programs of Rotary International.

“A huge thank you to our community for all of your support and to all the people who work so hard to make this happen every year. Happy Holidays and we will see you all again next year!” posted @christmastreesonlarchmont, the Instagram account run by Wilshire Rotary’s Christmas Tree lot team.

While the trees are gone for now, the impact of the lot continues. If you shopped the lot this year you met the team of seasonal workers, many of whom, are formerly incarcerated men and women, some recently reintegrating into society. For many, the Wilshire Rotary Christmas tree lot is their first job. It’s hard work but most return year after year to help out and re-connect with the community they have found working on the lot.

We first reported on the lot’s unique staff in 2018 and over the years, they have continued to provide employment and community for former prisoners working to restart their lives.

Most make the connection to the lot through a program called Partnership for Re-entry Program (PREP) started by Sister Mary Sean Hodges over 20 years ago. PREP operates under the umbrella of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles with a small staff and lots of volunteers.

“We believe in redemption,” explained Hodges. We got a chance to speak with Hodges and Tony Kim, PREP’s executive director earlier this week.

“Everyone deserves a second chance and a third chance, as many as it takes,” said Hodges. “Our goal is to help people find a community after they leave prison that will replace the community they are leaving after many years in prison.”

Hodges explains the transformation as” taking the prison out of the person” so they can heal.

“In the process, they become very strong leaders,” explained Hodges. “Many organizations have developed from persons who have come out of prison and want to give back.” For many, they leave a prison family behind and want to go back and intercede for them to help them heal as well, she added.

Kim, who runs the day-to-day operation of the program was convicted of a violent crime at the age of 17. Thanks to a change in the law that allowed juveniles parole, he was able to leave in 2017 after serving 32 years. His first job was on the Christmas tree lot.

“It’s such a good place to work, they treat us fairly, and there is no judgment,” said Kim adding that working at the lot is a great opportunity for a recent parolee to start their new life.

Working at the Christmas tree lot is a win-win for everyone. When the lot first opened it was staffed by volunteers and a handful of helpers, according to Wendy Clifford, who, along with her husband Scott, both Wilshire Rotarians, continue to manage the lot. It was hard to get enough volunteers and finding seasonal staff was becoming a challenge. Around that time, fellow Rotarian Dan Hodgkiss introduced the Cliffords to Hodges.

“Working at the lot was the first job ever for a majority of our clients,” said Hodges. “Scott and Wendy and Diane, Wendy’s sister who also manages the lot, treat everyone with such respect. The guys who have worked on the lot pass along the opportunity, to the next person coming out. They learn job skills and teamwork.”

In addition to working at the lot, Kim also started working at PREP as a volunteer and within a week he was running the office. There is a staff of eight, seven of whom were serving life sentences.

The goals of the PREP program are to help transform individuals to become productive members of society, and to reduce jail and prison populations to help lessen the financial burden on taxpayers while making our community safer and stronger, according to the program.

The program is a correspondence course where prisoners work through the rehabilitation process. There is a series of introspective lessons on a range of topics like domestic violence, anger management, etc., and are approved by the parole board.

“PREP helped me work on my rehabilitation,” explained Kim. “I had to take accountability for my actions and learn from what I had done as a requirement for parole. I was a very different person when I committed my crime. Everyone has a turning point, everyone is redeemable.”

All the work is completed through the mail. Only recently have prisoners been given access to tablets or computers. As a result, the PREP office receives 300-500 pieces of mail every day that volunteers sort, reply, and send back by mail to prisoners.

“We rely on our volunteers to help us keep up with the mail, ” explained Kim.

PREP has served over 40,000 prisoners estimated Hodges and the Catholic Church operates similar restorative justice programs in dioceses all over the country.

Hodges has seen the restorative justice movement go through waves. She’s pleased to see a movement away from mass incarceration and changes in policies as a result of efforts like hers where the recidivism rates have been extremely low over a very long time.

Tim Stotlar, a familiar face at the Wilshire Rotary Christmas Tree lot for the past 13 years, recently told Rotarians that the lot has helped more people than they know. Stotlar served 26 years and the lot was his first job when he got out. Now he’s a role model for some of the young kids on the lot who look up to him because of his work ethic he said was inspired by watching Rotarians serving the community.

“I am now that person, they look up to, it’s incredible,” said Stotlar.

The younger staff aren’t the only ones who look up to Stotlar and his fellow workers on the lot. Their stories inspire all of us who have the opportunity to work with them.

Tim Stotlar spoke to the Wilshire Rotary about their meeting this week about how working at the Christmas Tree lot has transformed his life.
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Patricia Lombard
Patricia Lombard
Patricia Lombard is the publisher of the Larchmont Buzz. Patty lives with her family in Fremont Place. She has been active in neighborhood issues since moving here in 1989. Her pictorial history, "Larchmont" for Arcadia Press is available at Chevalier's Books.

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