By Shirley Hawkins
SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Nakia Cornish, CEO and founder of the nonprofit community outreach organization Key to the Streets, is a true survivor.
Cornish, who has been running the resource center for inner-city families for 15 years, said her organization distributes food to families, seniors and the homeless and offers a youth program as well as a senior program.
“Food insecurity is one of the biggest problems we have in Los Angeles,” Cornish said. “About two million Angelenos experience food insecurity which means that one out of every five people does not know where their next meal is coming from.’
To meet the problem, Cornish holds a pop-up food distribution event every Tuesday and Thursday at 2 p.m. at the Crenshaw YMCA, 3820 Santa Rosalia Drive.
Each week, hundreds of cars arrive and snake through the line to receive groceries. Dozens of residents also walk up and wait patiently in line to receive food.
Cornish, who can be identified by her trademark pink and purple braids, picks up the food from food banks and, with help from a group of volunteers, stocks boxes and blue tote bags with fresh fruits and vegetables.
The nonprofit founder said that her young life got off to a rocky start. She spent four years in juvenile hall as a youth.
“When I was 13 or 14, I was incarcerated,” she said. “I was dyslexic so I had trouble learning in school and my classmates bullied me.
“I was getting into a lot of fights. Deep down, I thought because I couldn’t read that I was inadequate.”
Cornish was surprised to learn in juvenile hall that there were other people who had dyslexia.
“It was not just me,” Cornish said. “I finally learned how to read when I was in juvenile hall.”
At 23, Cornish joined Community Build and credits the nonprofit organization for helping to bolster her self-confidence.
“Before working at Community Build, I was a confused young woman trying to go through life on my own,” she said. “At Community Build, I met people who were stronger than me and they supported me and inspired me to get my life together.”
But after leaving Community Build, the single mother of four — ages 22, 18, 15 and 12 — found herself struggling to put food on the table.
“I didn’t always have the money to feed my kids,” Cornish said. “At the end of the month, money was really scarce. I found myself frequenting the World Harvest food bank each week picking up groceries and soon my friends, who also were single moms, started asking me to bring them groceries, too.”
Aware that South Los Angeles was designated as one of the “food deserts” in the city, Cornish rolled up her sleeves and made it her mission to fight the community’s food insecurity. Through partnerships with other nonprofits, it wasn’t long before her nonprofit rapidly grew into a full-fledged free food distribution service.
“I started Keys to the Streets to help the kids, single moms, seniors and the homeless in the community,” said Cornish, who added that Keys to the Streets subsists entirely on donations. Cornish said the nonprofit has helped thousands of needy residents since it was founded.
“Our mission is to make a difference in the lives of low-to-moderate income families so that they can have access to a better life,” she added.
Cornish said she is particularly fond of young people, since she herself struggled as a teen.
“Our youth program offers after-school education programs, summer sports, mentoring programs, a teen club and a college prep program,” she said. “Our kids are like diamonds. They may not start out with everything they need to reach their potential, but they are beautiful treasures that need nurturing and support to become the best that they can be.”
Keys to the Streets also provides transportation so that senior citizens can pick up their prescriptions and keep appointments with their doctors. They also offer home delivery of groceries to seniors.
“Many seniors are unable to access grocery stores due to COVID-19 and safety concerns,” Cornish said.
“We also help the homeless find shelter plus I have established a website that provides community news and job leads,” she added.
Despite the overwhelming positive feedback she has received from the community, Cornish said that the obstacles of running a nonprofit still abound.
The nonprofit founder said that she struggled to buy a truck last year so she could transport the food.
“I was picking up the food in my car,” she said. “I made a down payment on a truck, but the seller was waiting for me to pay the rest of the money. He even shaved cash off of the original price.
“It was $4,500 but he was willing to sell it to me for $3,000. I didn’t have all of the money. For four months, I struggled to get the money. I was afraid he would sell the truck to someone else.”
Luckily, her son saved the day.
“My eldest son gave me the cash to buy the truck,” she said happily. “We finally purchased the truck in October.”
But Cornish said that the need for groceries has dramatically increased for thousands of local residents who are currently out of work.
“We feed about 1,400 people a week and on Sundays we serve hot meals to about 150 seniors,” said Cornish, who works six days a week to keep her nonprofit running smoothly.
“Right now, we also are in need of a food distribution facility,” added Cornish, who has been seeking donations on her website in order to purchase a warehouse to store food. She is also seeking a facility with refrigeration to keep her food cooled.
Despite her good deeds, Cornish said that she is currently behind on her rent and has a $7,000 light bill to pay due to the huge refrigeration costs. She has no idea how she will pay the bills, but she is determined to keep her nonprofit going.
“I just leave it in God’s hands,’ she said.
Keys to the Streets can be reached at keytothestreets.org.
Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.