For many, the events of the past year summoned feelings of helplessness. While the pandemic claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and we remained largely isolated from one another, the problems in the world seemed too large to tackle; too complex to comprehend. In such a chaotic world, what can one individual do to make a difference? How does one find a silver lining amidst a seemingly endless supply of storm clouds?
At the start of the new year, one pair of Long Beach natives found their way. Using skills they honed during quarantine, and drawing on inspiration from their own personal hardships, Charlie Lee and Leandra Valerio are giving back to the most vulnerable in their community. The couple started a project called “The Olive Oyl”, and every Sunday night they’re giving out homemade meals to unhoused members of their community.
“The idea behind Olive Oyl is to give people a good, nourishing meal and to help them have something to eat,” said Lee. “But the bigger idea behind it is treating people with dignity and worth and value, and understanding that they’re humans. That’s why we spend a lot of time trying to cook a good meal for them.”
Lee said he has a more personal connection to the project, based on his past experiences. He’s hopeful that others will appreciate how tenuous things can be for the most disadvantaged members of society.
“For a time in my life, I was homeless for about six months, sleeping in my car and not having anywhere to go,” Lee explained. “I personally understand how rough it is to go from being homeless to doing anything, really. I just personally have a connection to that. Leandra and I, one of the things we have in common is we care a lot about people. We both have big hearts towards these people who have been outcast and forgotten, and are just having a really hard time digging themselves out of their situation.”
Valerio is experienced in uplifting and assisting the less fortunate while serving as a humanitarian clown. For those who remember the 1998 movie “Patch Adams” with Robin Williams, that’s the work that Valerio does to inspire various underprivileged groups around the world. The real Patch Adams founded the Gesundheit! Institute in 1971, which is the organization Valerio is affiliated with.
On one of her trips with the institute, she traveled to one of the poorest neighborhoods in Costa Rica, and saw a homeless man lying down in an alleyway. She was moved in that moment to lie with him and offer encouraging words in Spanish, providing comfort to someone in need.
“The only thing that mattered to me was that that man felt seen and loved,” she recalled. “It really opened my eyes. It took me going to a third world country to see that. I came home and realized there’s people on our streets here that need that same love and care.”
The couple decided that the best way to give back to the local community was with food. With so much extra time spent inside due to quarantine, one of the skills that Lee was able to work on was cooking. Now, the couple works together every Sunday to whip up as many home-cooked meals as their small kitchen can handle. Production has gradually increased every week, and they were able to hand out about a dozen care packages on their fifth Sunday making deliveries.
The staple of each delivery has been the homemade chicken sandwiches, which comes on a fresh-baked bun with a healthy heap of coleslaw. The gift bags also include a side of fries, FFP2 or KN95 masks, a bottle of water, napkins and hand wipes. Recently, the couple even added in dessert, including some homemade Turon–a Filipino dessert described as a “banana egg roll with caramelized sugar on top.”
Following the recent chicken sandwich craze that swept the nation when fast-food chain Popeye’s released its line of sandwiches, Lee said the sandwiches were a topical choice for the gift bags. That also inspired the name “Olive Oyl”, which pays homage to the beloved character in the “Popeye” cartoon series.
“I think in our generation, the chicken sandwich is the cool meal to have right now,” he explained. “That’s the reason why we chose chicken sandwiches. Not only do we want people to eat, we want them to feel worthy.”
Now that they’ve made a handful of deliveries, the Olive Oyl team is forming connections with those they’re looking to serve. Lee says he’s already earned the unofficial nickname of “The Asian Gordon Ramsay” from a few of the folks he’s met, and there’s been genuine gratitude for the deliveries.
“There’s a guy named John, and when we came back to give him sandwiches again, his question to us was, ‘Why are you doing this for homeless people? This is so much more than we usually get,’” Lee recalled. “Leandra just started telling him, ‘You deserve it, you’re a human, you should get this too.’”
Valerio is tasked with running the social media for Olive Oyl, and has been getting a lot of feedback from friends and family over the last five weeks. She said the couple has plans to possibly expand the operation in the future, but in the meantime they are hopeful that their efforts will inspire others to give back in their own way.
“I really love that a lot of people are interacting with us, asking what they can do in their city,” Valerio said. “It’s amazing. We’re opening the minds of people to make a difference in their own ways as well. It’s really not about us. It’s nice to get the praise and attention, but we’re doing this for the people out there.”
Readers who are interested in supporting The Olive Oyl can visit their Instagram page, @TheOliveOyl_ which includes a link to their GoFundMe page. Donations will go towards ingredients and other supplies to support the homeless population.