Rob Smith is one of the O.G. Homeboys. Or as Father Greg Boyle put it: “Rob Smith is one of the finest human beings I have ever known.”
Smith, who has lived in La Cañada Flintridge for more than 50 years, was among the original volunteers helping to bring Proyecto Pastoral to life in Boyle Heights. Since 1986, the nonprofit organization has worked to empower the community through outreach in education, leadership and service — efforts that paved the way for Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention program in the world.
Alongside Boyle, the renowned author and director of Homeboy Industries, a few other key figures and many committed community members, Smith helped steer Proyecto Pastoral into a fiscally solvent agency of grassroots change that has served thousands of people.
On a recent Thursday, Smith — longtime treasurer for Proyecto Pastoral board of directors — stopped by the Homegirl Cafe for lunch before paying impromptu visits to Proyecto Pastoral, Dolores Mission and its elementary school across the street.
Smith was recognized fondly and often by office staff, volunteers and trainees alike. And when he wasn’t, he was engaging; it’s hard to believe anyone who met him wouldn’t remember him the next time.
“It’s home, you know, a home away from home,” said Smith, who occasionally still attends church at Dolores Mission with his wife, Joanne (who, once upon a time, babysat Boyle).
“Rob knows how to put first things recognizably first,” Boyle said via text message. “He lives as though the truth were the truth. He’s a holy man.”
Smith’s family is in the car business, operating La Crescenta’s Bob Smith Toyota dealership, among others. Rob Smith ran Sierra Leasing Company in Glendale. He said he intended to go a different direction when he graduated from UCLA, but he’s happy for the experiences — and the flexibility for volunteerism — his profession provided.
“I was going to go into the Army and I had an asthma attack up in Fort Lewis and they didn’t want me after that,” said Rob Smith, a sweet, soft-spoken man who played football for the Bruins.
“I needed a job and my dad says, ‘There’s the leasing company.’ I thought, ‘Well, let me do that until I can figure out what I want to do with my life.’ And that’s what I did for 50 years.”
He says he’s unwound himself from the business for the most part, just as he’s not as involved as he once was at Proyecto Pastoral, where he was a mainstay over the past three decades.
Soon after college, Smith began working with the Catholic Worker, an organization that tackled issues related to homelessness: “From there, I became more conscious of the poverty and one thing led to another. The streets let you know there’s more to life than just business principles.”
Proyecto Pastoral was founded by community residents and the California Province of Jesuits. Among the first orders of business was education, in the form of a continuation school for children who’d been barred from other schools, Smith said.
In 1999, residents created the Camino Seguro — “safe passage” — program, in which adults volunteer to stand on street corners to protect children from gangs so that the students could make their way to and from school without trouble.
There are also occasional Peace Walks through the neighborhood. Smith is a regular at those, according to Father Ted Gabrielli, the pastor at Dolores Mission, long a modest sanctuary for immigrants needing a place to stay.
“Talk about somebody who puts others first, always,” Gabrielli said of Smith. “[Through] Dolores Mission’s darkest moments, toughest days and nights, Rob Smith’s always been here, standing by us.
“They opened the shelter and the church was getting bomb threats and death threats for the priests — and the Smith family was there to say, ‘We believe in this, we support this, this is what the Catholic Church should be doing.’”
Indeed, Smith has seen the neighborhood which Boyle’s organizations help change over the decades. He has memories of having to lie on the floor during meetings while guns were being fired outside.
One evening, angry protesters came calling. It was during a controversial period when Proyecto Pastoral was working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to replace projects with upgraded housing developments that stand now, well-maintained and in a much safer neighborhood, Smith said.
“Part of the community didn’t like some of the things that they felt Proyecto was doing and they came through the door, broke the lock and came into our meeting,” he said. “It was quite scary.”
The housing situation was eventually improved, Smith said, but along the way, he and his colleagues, who weren’t from the neighborhood, learned to listen to the people they were serving. They’re still learning, Smith said.
Take, for instance, the recently opened women’s shelter at Proyecto Pastoral, where women older than 55 who need shelter are provided a safe place to sleep.
“That was strictly from the community,” Smith said. “We were telling them, as a board, you can’t take care of everybody. And it went in one ear and out the other. What the community teaches us is: ‘We’re starting a women’s shelter.’ And now the community is up at 5:30 a.m. every day to feed them before they go off to their jobs or to stand in line at those places you drive by to pick up day laborers.”
“It’s one of the few women’s shelters in the area,” said Gisel Robles, a newly hired case manager at that women’s shelter. “We’re a predominantly Latin and Hispanic community and taking care of our elderly is really important to us.”
Having grown up in the area, Robles was a regular at Proyecto Pastoral, she told Smith, who seemed to be unable to stop smiling as he listened to her stories about having participated in theater, youth leadership and job training programs at the site.
“Without all the volunteers and donors and stuff, we couldn’t operate this place and do these things,” said Jack Faherty, Homeboy Industries’ chief financial officer. “Really, it’s a work of love for a lot of people.”
That’s exactly right, Smith said, promising he means it when he says it’s he who has benefited. That he is the one who is thankful.
“Oh, it’s enriched me,” he said. “Anytime we take something out of a box, there’s so much chance for richness. I’ve been blessed. And, God, I love it.”
For information, visit proyectopastoral.org.