Adelene Bertha is a highly motivated, accomplished and caring student at the University of California, Los Angeles and Senior Peer Support Specialist with the Downtown Women’s Center in L.A. She focuses on Project 100, one she helped pioneer to house 100 women from Skid Row. The project has since secured over $1 million in funding. Her dedication to volunteer work is especially striking.
Adelene is the middle child of seven kids. Her mom was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Cuba to a Cuban mother and a Greek-Cuban father. She looked different than her siblings, something she noted when she had children of her own.
“She told us that just because we’re different doesn’t mean we’re not the same. She was really adamant that we share our culture and share in other people’s culture, so that we were knowledgeable and aware,” Adelene says.
Adelene and her siblings grew up moving around. Originally from Pennsylvania, they stayed in Wilkes-Berre, Hazleton, Shenandoah, Exeter and a place that she remembers started with the letter P. One place she remembers vividly was an area where no one looked like her. She enjoyed interacting with other nationalities and recalls her mom advocating for a cause particularly important to the Black community.
When they first moved to town, a teacher called Adelene’s mom to inform her that the kids had to come to school on Martin Luther King Day. It was not a holiday. Her mom refused. The next year, the school made it a half-day. Still, Adelene’s mom kept her kids home. The following year, it was an official holiday. At the time, Adelene didn’t realize her mom was advocating, but she thinks about that time often as she volunteers today, citing service as another way to advocate for change.
“I had the best relationship with my mom. It only took one day for everything to change. The day it changed, I left and didn’t see her again for five years. When given the choice between me and the man she was currently with, he won. At that time.”
At the age of 16, Adelene first became homeless, taking up occupancy on Skid Row on and off for the next several months in tents, mini apartments — many without bathrooms — and later, shelters. Her wallet and purse were stolen enough that she stopped replacing them. The shelter she spent the most time in, on and off for five years, was Covenant House California, before saving enough money for her first apartment around 2017. She was working two jobs, one at Verizon and another in Gang Reduction and Youth Development with the Mayor’s Office, starting as a volunteer before getting on the payroll.
While she was originally planning to go to college and was accepted to eight different schools, some on scholarship, she ran into an issue that is common — and often overlooked— amongst the unhoused population.
“I didn’t just lose somewhere to live. I lost my identification. So, I didn’t have my social security card or my ID. And so, it took a while for me to prove that I was myself,” she says.
It was then that she decided to focus on getting a job. Over time, she got a job with the county working on drug and alcohol prevention in Skid Row and volunteered and worked with the United Coalition East Prevention Project.
Eventually, she was nominated to the LA City Skid Row Park Advisory Board, a role that provides resources and services, educational programs and community events for residents. As co-chair, she is pivotal to organizing and hosting quarterly resource fairs for which she conducts outreach to local organizations to provide housing assistance, employment opportunities, COVID-19 and HIV testing, and mental health and substance abuse resources. She especially enjoys when the community comes in for public comment.
There was a quote on the wall of the Covenant House California shelter that has stuck with her over the years: Too many people listen to give an answer than listen to understand. These days, Adelene focuses on understanding, even when she doesn’t have the solution. She considers it one of the most important parts of her work.
When she was homeless, she also especially valued the people who looked out for her, spoke with her and encouraged her. They became the support system she didn’t have, and now she’s repaying the favor and serving as inspiration for the youth on Skid Row.
“I’m very appreciative for the people around me that pushed me to do something more and encouraged me never to drink or smoke, because I know what alcohol and other drugs can do to a person. It’s very apparent in the Skid Row community, and hopefully one day that will change,” she says.
Adelene recommends anyone who is interested to volunteer inside shelters or with underfunded community partners who could use the help. Then, they can use what they learn to uplift the people they’re volunteering for.
“The best things that ever happened to me were because I decided to say ‘yes’ to volunteering. I learned humility and public speaking skills. And that it’s ok not to have the answer to everyone’s problems; just being there and having a conversation with them can be enough,” she confides. “You build trust and connection that you’re not even aware of. It could be someone that you barely talk to or that you see every day. You might not really even know each other. But to them, you coming by, bringing a resource and saying hello, can feel like their whole world.”
Outside of her previously-mentioned work, Adelene also volunteers for Skid Row 3-on-3 Basketball League, LA Mayor’s Summer Night Lights Program, Skid Row Movies at the Park and the LA City College Umoja educational preparation program.
Today, Adelene, fully housed and on the verge of getting her bachelor’s degree, is aiming for her PhD in psychology. Having gone through five years of therapy herself, she tries to normalize conversations around mental health and the positive experience talking about it can be.
“I want to focus on using the research as an implementation tool to address those that live in Skid Row, because therapy is not seen as a positive option there. I want to change the stigma around therapy for those that reside in and live in Skid Row.”
Oftentimes, she cites, people experiencing homelessness are so consumed with finding a place to live that they don’t address the trauma that comes along with it or how they got there in the first place. Others may have diagnosable mental health issues that get pushed aside in the rush to find employment. Shelters don’t require therapy for guests. Adelene wants people to feel heard and credits her therapy experience as one of the reasons she volunteers to listen to people’s concerns or troubles.
Adelene has also reconnected with her mom. In 2018, she saved enough money to buy her mom a flight from her new home in Las Vegas for a challenging reunion.
“Even though I was badly hurt by her, she’s the one that I could never stop loving. Even to this day, if she calls me, I’ll answer. At the end of the day, she brought me into this world. I’ll always be in her orbit,” she states.
After five years of hard work, Adelene has almost completed a novel based off of her life and homeless experience but with supernatural characters. And she’s about six years into the launch of a clothing line, Nerdy Ink Apparel, that she started with her boyfriend. They shared a history of growing up homeless and felt judged for what they didn’t have as well as their love of anime and books, so they teamed up to foster his passion for fashion and graphic design and her desire to make people feel good about themselves. And in a few days, she’s joining UCLA’s Alumni Scholar Club and Heal the Bay in her first beach cleanup.
More than anything, she encourages everyone she meets to volunteer. What became very clear during the pandemic is that people need other people. They need to connect. The results are positive for both the recipient as well as the volunteer. She likens it to a sense of self-care.
The future is bright for this force of nature. And she’s reaching behind to bring others with her every step of the way. Adelene is a true point of light for everyone around her, including those in a position to make systemic change.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Adelene? Find local volunteer opportunities.