The following is a guest post by Kim Sedmak, Executive Producer of “Your Life Calling TODAY” with Jane Pauley. You can watch the Your Life Calling series here.
I’d only ever seen L.A.’s ‘Skid Row’ on the news and in the movies. So to me personally walking the actual streets with Orlando Ward while shooting for the Dec. 13th TODAY SHOW segment “Your Life Calling TODAY” with Jane Pauley was an eye-opener. He once lived on skid row, was addicted to drugs and alcohol but became clean and sober when he entered L.A’s Midnight Mission. People trust him and know him on both sides of the street. When our other cameraman attempted to shoot additional footage without Orlando walking with him, he soon found himself facing a potentially dangerous situation. Strangers, particularly with a TV camera are not welcomed.
The sanctity of the Midnight Mission provided us the best location to shoot Jane Pauley’s interview. When Jane arrived she made a point of reminding me how many times she had worked in maximum security prisons while interviewing criminals during her long career at NBC. This was nowhere near that level of danger, but it’s no picnic – you’ll meet many with serious mental illnesses, and some bundled up holding onto their only belonging. The Midnight Mission is one of the oldest continuously operating human services organizations in the L.A. Region. The reason for its name is because when the organization was founded they served a meal to the homeless at midnight.
We had to wait to well past 6 p.m. until the dining room was cleared before beginning to even set and light for the interview because more than 800 meals are served daily to the homeless and their service was not to be interrupted for a TV crew. I admired the kitchen staff for staying focused on their “real work.” Twelve years ago, it was in this dining room that Orlando began the slow walk back. He and his roommate at the mission were tasked with volunteering in the dining room as part of their in-house service work. It was here that Orlando began to build back his self-esteem and begin not only his recovery but his reinvention. Rising through the ranks, Orlando rose to become the Vice President of Operations with the organization. At age 50, the only executive to ever come off the streets and work their way up to a prominent leadership position. Not bad for a guy who attended Stanford University and once had good jobs in sales and business!
Perhaps you’ll recall the film, The Soloist, a movie about a Los Angeles Times reporter who meets a homeless man playing a two-stringed violin and finds out that the Skid Row inhabitant used to be a Julliard cellist. Jamie Foxx plays the homeless musician, Nathanial Ayers, and Robert Downey Jr. plays Times columnist Steve Lopez, whose discovery that a muttering, shopping-cart-pushing Ayers was once a musical prodigy. During our shoot, we learned Paramount Pictures took over the Midnight Mission for a hefty price to make this movie here on-location because this is where Nathanial Ayres ended up. Orlando knows this fellow too!
One of the many visuals field producer Simon van Steyn shot that did not make the TODAY SHOW version is of a young Rabbi with elementary school students wanting Orlando to speak with them during a volunteer session at the mission. In his booming voice, Orlando told the students seated in the dining room “Don’t ever look away when a homeless person speaks to you. The strongest thing that we can do for someone who is suffering from the condition of homelessness is look them in the eye and smile. Acknowledge that they are here. There is nothing worse than feeling like you’re not a part of anything.”