Have you ever gone by the former library at 610 California Ave. and wondered, “Who is this Vera Davis McClendon?” The building is now a youth and family center for the Oakwood area named for an outstanding activist who is an important part of Venice’s heritage in assisting the needy. In honor of Black History Month I share with you an interview I conducted with Vera Davis in 1996.
A wall in the outer office at LIEU-CAP’s headquarters on Westminster Ave. in Venice is filled with certificates and awards from city, county, state and federal agencies. More commendations are piled in Davis’s office in need of money for frames and time to put them together. This outpouring of recognition is a testament to the distinguished service that Vera Davis has provided to the community through the years.
The women and children who come through the doors at LIEU-CAP couldn’t ask for a more knowledgeable and understanding person to help them. “I use myself as a role model,” Davis says, “because I’ve been through all kinds of situations.” She tells the women “I was able to do it. So can you. You have to build the kind of confidence within yourself that you can do anything.”
Raised by a great aunt after her mother died when she was young, Davis spent her childhood in a small Louisiana town about 200 miles from New Orleans. “That is where I got the inspiration or the training or the commitment for helping others,” Davis says. “Through my great aunt’s involvement … she was strictly a people person. My great aunt or mother, as I came to call her, said that I’ll get my reward in heaven. I thought that was a great way of putting it … so I wouldn’t be looking for a payment back.”
When Davis moved to Southern California in 1950, she was married with five children. She and her husband settled in Santa Monica. In 1954 they were one of the first families to move into the newly built Mar Vista Gardens where Davis and her then seven children stayed for 17 years.
Davis and her husband separated in 1963. “He was an alcoholic,” she says. “He got to be a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. He was physically and verbally abusive. I had to raise seven children almost by myself. A judge ordered him to pay child support, but he quit his job rather than have to pay.”
“There are few things that I haven’t experienced personally,” Davis continues. “I know I can be an inspiration and give hope to those people who feel there is no hope. If you haven’t been there, you don’t know. I understand the plight of women, but I also understand that you have to accept responsibility … do the best you can. You have to take what you have and make what you want … that frame of mind will help you a lot rather than to dwell on the situation.”
Davis started her community service in 1970 with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). After her training, she organized a welfare rights group in the Mar Vista Gardens project. Before this, “I was involved in talking to mothers and people having problems,” Davis says, “but I did not know how to help them.”
After finishing the VISTA program, Davis became director of the Venice NAP (Neighborhood Adult Participation Project) center. The organization started off with 22 centers and, because of financial constraints, was cut back to 13. Then funding was cut off completely. “I said ‘What’s going to happen to the people who we serve?’,” Davis remembers. “The people in the main office said ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen to them. Everybody will have to go their separate ways and staff will have to draw unemployment’.”
Davis suggested that all the center directors join together to incorporate in order to receive funding directly. “They were a group of naysayers,” she says. “They wanted to draw unemployment and some said,‘Those people don’t care what you do for them’.”
Davis decided to do it on her own and incorporated in 1983. “I had to change the name,” she says, “because I wanted to include the people who we serve so they would have some sense of belonging.” Thus, the name LIEU-CAP … Low Income and Elderly United Community Assistance Program.
Davis started writing proposals to the city and county to give the same comprehensive service that had been previously provided. “You have to start things … because you know the needs,” she says. “The government and nobody else is going to start anything.”
“By us being near the beach,” Davis continues, “we had a lot of women coming here for food and for their children. They’d come about 2:00 in the afternoon. The kids would be so tired. A lot of them would smell like urine. I’d say, ‘Where do you sleep?’ Most of them slept in the toilets. That just broke my heart. It really made me sick.”
A shelter was opened in 1985. “When we lived in the project,” Davis says, “we had bunk beds in the girls’ room … four girls in one room. With four beds in a room we can help a woman with three kids … or two mothers with a child each. That’s four people we can bring in off the street. That’s where I got the concept … based on my own experience. I know it can be done because I did it.”
Now there is a 30-bed facility in back of the main office and transitional housing across the street. “The purpose of transitional housing,” Davis says, “is to help the people once they stay here at the shelter for 30 days. Where are you going to put them? Right back out on the street?”
Infant care is next on the agenda. “We work with Westminster Elementary School and St. Joseph Center to have child care,” Davis says, “but we don’t have any place for infants. We need to be able to get the moms out of the house as soon as possible because most all of them need some kind of training and they need to be able to look for jobs.”
Ultimately Davis envisions a multifaceted one-stop place. “After the infant care,” she says, “I want the ladies who are interested in hairstyling to get their cosmetology certificate to run a salon. There is big business in that. Then, mom can get her hair and nails done and someone can take care of the babies.”
Davis may be miles away from her childhood in Louisiana, but she still lives by words her mother taught her many years ago – “There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us, so it doesn’t behoove any of us to talk about the rest of us.”
Vera Davis and LIEU-CAP are no longer with us but her legacy will live on for future generations.