UMSI students help Homeboy Industries for ASB

Kenji Kaneko (third from left) with fellow ASB'ers Ella Meng and Josue Reyes (center) and members of the Homeboys silk screen shop.

Kenji Kaneko was one of the first UMSI students to participate in the new option for a self-directed Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program. ASB creates the opportunity for students to connect to the public sector through a social impact project, with the goal of enhancing the relationship between UMSI and the greater community. In 2017 students were given the opportunity to choose the organization with whom they wanted to partner. 

In February, Kenji, along with Josue Reyes and Ella Meng, traveled to Los Angeles to volunteer with Homeboy Industries. Homeboy Industries is a non-profit group that provides job training for men and women who’ve been incarcerated or involved with gangs.  

A former LA resident, Kenji was aware of Homeboy’s presence through its chips and salsa sold throughout Southern California. Then a couple of years ago, he read Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle. Gregory, aka Father G, is a Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries.  Kenji was inspired by the story behind Homeboy Industries and the “homies” who’ve been helped by the group.

“I loved the book,” Kenji said. “I would highly recommend it to anyone because the work that Homeboy is doing is the kind of work that makes a real difference in improving people’s lives.”

When he realized he had the opportunity to choose his own ASB destination, Homeboy in LA seemed like the perfect fit.

So, he sent an email. “I wasn’t that nervous about contacting them,” he recalls. “Most non-profits have understaffed IT departments. Most volunteers are helping with social work rather than websites. I figured they’d want tech help from U of M students if we were offering.”

Homeboy Industries was indeed happy with the team’s offer. With a one-person IT staff, there is always a backlog of projects. Kenji, Josue and Ella collaborated on Homeboy’s e-commerce platform. Its current retail website wasn’t functioning as well as they would have liked. Kenji and his team took on the job of transitioning it to a new Shopify platform. The project was time consuming. It meant the group had to learn the Shopify system — which included setting up the framework for 215 items. 

“It wasn’t a lot of time, but we did good work for them. Considering we mastered Shopify without much previous experience, we delivered what we promised. The whole experience was better than any of us anticipated.” 

Kenji’s advice to those considering their own self-directed ASB in the future is pretty straightforward.

“Know what you’re passionate about. Identify organizations in that space. Then, just reach out.”

Posted March 16, 2017

 Photo credits: Josue Reyes