A major source of pride for us at United Way is the level of passion that our work inspires in our supporters and volunteers. And Georgia Van Cuylenburg is a living example of that!
A longtime admirer of United Way’s ability to galvanize people around causes, it was our vigorous support of Measure H that won Georgia’s heart. When she attended the Ballot Initiative information night, she was moved to see a room full of passionate, strategic thinkers pulling apart the issues and putting it all together into a message of hope and possibility for our community. That night, she was deeply inspired by the United Way team.
Georgia moved to L.A. when she was 18 because she was so troubled by the messages she saw promoted by many famous young women in Hollywood. In her view, there needed to be positive, loving, and life-affirming messages in the mix as well. She wanted children around the world to know that you could take a healthy, loving path and still be newsworthy and “cool.”
Her nonprofit organization, Arts Bridging the Gap, seeks to empower children in poverty with ideas, tools, and a belief in themselves. With those things, she says, a child feels like they can take on the world.
Georgia shared many other wonderful insights and stories from her time with United Way. We encourage you to read the full transcript of her interview below.
What about United Way inspired you to get involved?
I have always admired United Way’s ability to galvanize people around causes and to bring people together for education and information sharing, but it was seeing the way they got behind the recent Measure H ballot initiative that won my heart. I had the pleasure of attending the Ballot Initiative information night and it filled me with joy to see a room full of passionate, strategic thinkers really pulling apart the issues and putting it all together into a message of hope and possibility for our community. You seldom find such a young team that not only truly gets the issues but also believes in the solutions.
What’s been your favorite experience with United Way so far?
I’ve attended a number of events now and each one has been inspiring, fun, and rewarding. I think if any of them stand out, it would be the Empow(her) event last month. It is a unique experience to have a room full of women all supporting each other, excited for each other’s success and offering support and friendship. That is a testimony to the community and environment that United Way creates here in L.A. I felt very fortunate to be there. That being said, my ‘favorite’ experiences with United Way have honestly come from my one-on-one interaction with different team members. When I talk with the United Way team there is such joy, determination, and commitment behind their words that I leave feeling inspired and so sure we really can create this change. I look forward to many more such experiences!
What spurred you to move to the U.S.?
I decided I was moving to L.A. when I was 12. I was so troubled by the messages that some famous young females were putting out through Hollywood that I decided there needed to be positive, loving, and life-affirming messages in the mix too – so that children around the world would know that you could take a healthy, loving path and still be newsworthy and cool.
Why do you focus your philanthropy around kids?
Well kids are usually way more fun than adults, because they haven’t gone and become ‘grown ups’ yet! But I choose to focus most of my philanthropy on kids because they are our future. They are these joyful little bodies of possibility and I believe it is our role as ‘bigger kids’ to support them, nurture those possibilities, and give them everything we can to ensure they live the best life possible.
I chose to focus the efforts of my nonprofit organization, Arts Bridging the Gap, specifically on children in poverty because I am awestruck by the astounding resilience, empathy, and compassion that these children naturally possess. When we ask ‘how can we transform the negativity in the world today’ I believe that their compassionate, empathetic, and resilient leadership is the answer. But if they do not have the educational resources and they have never had a mentor that said ‘I believe you can change the world’ then how can we expect them to change our world?
Do you have a favorite experience you can share?
Oh wow, there are so many – I feel so fortunate in that way – I seem to have a new favorite experience every day. But perhaps one that relates closely to the work of United Way is my special friendship with Jayden. I first met Jayden down on 5th and San Pedro during a children’s festival. He was with his Mom and big brothers and sisters. They were all super excited to do art and play with me but Jayden stayed in his stroller and wouldn’t get out. I tried to engage him and he avoided my eye contact and kept trying to hide his head in his food-stained pajamas. This little meeting stuck with me and I thought of that family often – not because of the fun I had with Junior and Haven making art collages – but because of their little brother who I just couldn’t get to connect with me.
A year and a half later I was back on the same street corner face-painting children at another festival day. I looked up to see Junior – and with great joy reminded him about the shark he drew me last time. As we were reconnecting I saw a little man come from behind his Mom, run towards me, and jump into my arms. It was Jayden.
He held me so tight and wouldn’t even pull his head away to look at me for more than a second. We just sat there for what felt like a wonderful lifetime. Jayden wouldn’t say anything. Eventually we had to wave goodbye but neither of us really wanted to. He promised he would come back to the next festival and his Mum promised too. I have known Jayden now for four years and we never ever miss having a special moment together when there is a festival on Skid Row. It took me two years to get a smile out of him but now that he has started, he never stops smiling when we are together – neither do I.
What about your future work with United Way are you most excited about?
I am honestly so excited to learn all the ways that I can support the work of United Way that I don’t even know about yet. But the area that is most exciting to me currently is helping their efforts to combat the homelessness crisis. There is so much work that needs to be done and there are very few organizations that have the depth of understanding of the issues and a commitment to creating the solutions that United Way does here in Los Angeles. It is an incredibly troubling time – with the newest statistics showing such a drastic increase in the number of our neighbors living on the streets. But it is also a very promising time with the recent show of support from our government and voters with the passing of Measure H and Prop HHH. United Way is uniquely positioned to not only be working on the ground to create the solutions but to be working with the general population of Los Angeles to communicate the true issues to them and help people understand how they can contribute to the solutions.
What do you think is the biggest issue facing Los Angeles?
I believe the biggest issue, in conjunction with the growing gap between those living in poverty and those living in affluence, is the homelessness crisis. The Los Angeles community is stuck in a very dangerous cycle. To know that the number of people that are homeless in L.A. County has increased 23% in the last year and yet to also know that we have housed more people in the last year than ever before (a 30% increase from 2015) is truly alarming because it shows us that despite our best effort to turn this crisis around and despite the incredible work and relative success of our dedicated service providers who have had better results than ever with this population, despite all of the focus and attention being given to this issue, it is getting worse at a rate we simply cannot keep up with currently.
Thank goodness that Prop HHH passed and thank goodness Measure H passed but we have to acknowledge that now the real work starts. In my opinion, it is going to take an incredible act of teamwork, collaboration and unification to achieve what I believe is possible for our community. There are so many issues within this big issue and so many systems affected by each other. I feel it is critical that the wider community of Los Angeles become educated on these issues and are engaged in the solutions so that they no longer give their moment of concern to a sandwich drive or a person in need at a freeway exit but instead have understood the issues enough to know that this only worsens the problem and their time and money needs to go to the service providers who work with the community to create systemic change in their lives.
What has you most excited for the future of Los Angeles?
The most exciting thing to me currently is that people are taking action! I believe Los Angeles is one of the most powerful and influential cities in the world and it has the potential to use that influence to transform so many people's lives and define the direction in which our world is headed.
For so many years, I’ve been privy to inspiring, empowered conversations that would end up being no more than a conversation or a great idea. And in the last year, I have watched with joy as so many of those same conversations have been followed up by inspiring, empowered actions.
Los Angeles is jam-packed with innovators, entrepreneurs, creators, and storytellers who have everything it would take to create massive change in our city and share it with the world through the megaphone of Hollywood. If there is any shining glimmer of goodness that has come out of the last year of political darkness it is that people are finally passionate enough to take that action. And what I love the most is that so many of these actions coming out of our city are fueled by love, compassion, empathy, and a belief in the goodness of humans. With this as our fuel, I believe our city can lead the way in creating a better, more compassionate, and inclusive world for everyone – that’s what I’m most excited about!