Founder of United Hands
By Jackson Vachal
March 11, 2021
At 3:30 in the morning, while most of Los Angeles County sleeps, Martha Barajas is awake picking up surplus donations for United Hands Multipurpose Center’s daily food giveaways. By 8 AM, she and her team convene, packaging food for hundreds of local families. When the United Hands team begins to distribute these packages from a corner parking lot at 10 AM, the queue of local residents has been growing for three hours. The recipients come not only from Compton, California where United Hands is based, but also from surrounding areas like Watts, Lynwood, and LA proper. Every weekday, Martha and her team of volunteers serve 600 families, and on Saturdays they provide food to more than 1,000.
United Hands’ mission is to “inspire hope and assure that the basic needs are met for low-income families in the City of Compton and surrounding areas.” This area of Los Angeles County has struggled for decades with endemic poverty exacerbated by persistent government neglect. Martha and the United Hands network are the backbone of a truly grassroots movement, working tirelessly to give a voice to struggling members of their community. They fight for the most vulnerable local residents, focusing on families and struggling senior citizens. With five retirement communities in the immediate area, this latter group has gone drastically underserved. Martha stated, “When you see these seniors in line, that’s our motivation.” United Hands has expanded their giveaways to include diapers and baby formula—expensive products vital for families with young children. They have also made targeted efforts to serve foster homes and local mobile home communities.
By the time she founded United Hands as a registered nonprofit in 2017, Martha was a veteran of community service projects in Compton. Working in community relations for Compton Unified School District, she led outreach to families in crisis by partnering with local organizations to provide students and their families with basic necessities. As a local 9-11 dispatcher, Martha coordinated community outreach efforts with the Compton Police Department, leading initiatives like Thanksgiving turkey giveaways. She became well known to the local community for hosting food giveaways from her kitchen, supported by a small core network of friends and volunteers. As word of her projects spread throughout Compton and nearby neighborhoods, more and more families would arrive each week until Martha decided she needed to establish a formalized charitable organization.
In addition to their daily food distributions, the organization has fought for Compton residents’ right to clean water. In 2018, a section of the city began receiving brown, foul-smelling water contaminated by an aging water pipe infrastructure. In response, Martha spearheaded a campaign to restore the community’s water quality that garnered national media attention and eventually forced the LA County Board of Supervisors to dissolve the local Sativa Water District for negligent practices.
Martha and United Hands became involved with The Farmlink Project in mid-2020 when one of our team members called them looking to place a large shipment of produce. Since receiving their first shipment in early August, consisting of 25,000 pounds of mixed produce, the organization has accepted several more large deliveries of eggs, sweet potatoes, and various vegetables that United Hands distributed as part of their daily food giveaways. As Martha observed during our conversation, the missions of United Hands and The Farmlink Project are closely aligned—neither organization is working for money or acclaim, but rather out of a desire to uplift and provide hope to communities by providing basic needs. Going forward, Martha and her team are working to expand the organization’s capacity to serve the community. Lacking a place to refrigerate and store food—volunteers still meet at Martha’s house—United Hands recently bought a delivery truck and are searching for a suitable location to serve as a permanent food bank.
When I spoke to Martha, her passion for the work United Hands does was palpable. That she has been able to assemble a team of dedicated, like-minded volunteers is a testament to the passion she exudes for serving her community. During our conversation Martha made a point to credit this network of volunteers, some of whom have been working with her for years. She expressed earnest gratitude for the outpouring of support from volunteers and donors that allows United Hands to make such a powerful impact on the Compton and Los Angeles area. Said Martha, “I want to emphasize it’s not an ‘I’ thing, it’s about teamwork. Together everyone achieves more.”