When Paul Avila was a little boy, he often went with his mother to Skid Row to bring his homeless uncle food and clothes. Sometimes it was scary for him, but it built a foundation of compassion he would later use to shelter many homeless from despair.
Skid Row is a 54-block area of downtown Los Angeles containing America's highest concentration of homeless people. It was a landing pad for Avila's uncle between prison stints. This uncle had turned to gangs in his youth for a sense of belonging after his mother died. Drugs and alcohol took over, and he was just lucky he had a sister who cared enough to keep him clothed and fed.
Avila and his mother went one time after dark and got a bad feeling. They didn't get out of the car, but passed a package to his uncle through the car window. Some 30 homeless people surrounded the car hoping for a handout.
"That night really opened my eyes, not knowing at that age back then that I would want to come back when I was older to that same area and do something positive," Avila, now 39, said in a phone interview.
Avila faced his own troubles before finding a way to help others. When he was 20, his son, Pauly, was born blind.
"That was a very difficult blow as a young man, having to know that you're going to have a child at such a young age and now knowing that he's blind," Avila said. By the time Pauly was 4, it was clear something else was wrong.
Pauly wasn't walking or talking like he should have been. A neurologist informed Avila that Pauly is also autistic.
"Blind kids ... at least they can talk and function and do all those other things. Autistic kids, at least they can see and they can put things in perspective in a visual sense. When you have both things against you, it's very difficult," Avila said.
"Music was important to this little boy so cut off from normal interactions with the world around him."
"I would call him 'little Stevie Wonder,'" Avila recalled. "He would just move his head back and forth. Music really seemed to soothe and calm his soul."
Avila was serving breakfast at a mission and saw a homeless person singing, dancing, and having a good time. It hit him, "Wow, music is so powerful. I don't care if you're going through the disabilities Pauly has or if you're a homeless guy on a street corner, music brings the joy out of everybody."
"Music is so powerful. I don't care if you're going through the disabilities Pauly has or if you're a homeless guy on a street corner, music brings the joy out of everybody. - Paul Avila, founder, Pauly's Project
He bought 10 radios and gave them to homeless people. Not only was it the gift of music, it also connected them to the news, sports, and society in general. One person told Avila the radio provided companionship, breaking the lonely silence. So many of the homeless people are lonely, Avila said.
It was the start of Pauly's Project, which has now distributed some 6,000 radios, as well as hygiene sets, tents, sleeping bags, and other items needed by the homeless, particularly on Skid Row where Avila used to visit his uncle.
Avila's experiences with his uncle and Pauly taught him to have compassion for others who are suffering. "It's completely changed me to have compassion, to humble me, to not be so judgmental on people," he said.
He has gotten to know people on Skid Row. His friend, Steven, had a makeshift drum set - some containers, pots, whatever he could find. In May, Avila presented Steven with a new drum se
Pauly walks with his father to hand out radios, and even though he's not able to interact and make friends with the homeless people like his father does, he helps them in an unexpected way. When the homeless people see Pauly and how hard it is for him, their own troubles seem a little lighter, Avila said.
"I don't think Pauly knows how many lives he's touching," Avila said. "God sent him as an angel. He has a purpose in this life, he's making a huge impact.
© Tara MacIsaac