Richard Ayoub, executive director of Project Angel Food for the past two years, believes in conspiracy theories – of the best kind.
“If you have a goal,” he says, “the universe conspires to help make it happen.”
Huh. Sounds like the philosophy of the nonprofit’s founder, New Age author Marianne Williamson. But where raising money is concerned, Ayoub’s main job, it’s a good attitude to have when you feed 1,300 critically ill and/or mobility-challenged people per day.
“I always set a goal as far as fundraising is concerned,” Ayoub says. “Because it always happens. People want to see you succeed.”
Ayoub has lived in Los Angeles for 27 years. He was born in El Paso, Texas, one of five kids, and says his background is “half Lebanese and half Mexican.” It doesn’t take long to understand that this is a man who lives to give.
It all started with his mom, who once convinced her state senator to find a way to fly a burn victim from El Paso to Houston for treatment. “My mother knew how to get things done. She taught me a lot about philanthropy.”
At 19, Ayoub learned of a local gymnast who qualified for the Olympics but couldn’t afford to train for them. He formed a committee to secure the necessary funds ($800) in from the owner of a radio station.
And, although Ayoub is single, he has kids – about 600 of them. “My whole goal was to help them dream bigger,” he says, referring to Lockwood Elementary in Hollywood. He and some friends give time and money to produce quarterly events like science fairs and athletic days. “Low income schools, they don’t have PE teachers and they have no organized sports.”
Feel selfish yet? Inadequate maybe? Both?
Ayoub started as a media guy. “A journalist,” he says. “To make a difference in my small part of the world.” That led to producing TV, such as the show Extra and he also helped create “Kurt the ‘CyberGuy’” at KTLA.
Jumping from media to running a nonprofit seems like an odd leap, but to Ayoub it all makes sense.
“I’ve always loved nonprofit,” he says. “I was on the board of the Trevor Project, raised money for AIDS Project Los Angeles and the AIDS marathon.”
So it wasn’t all that surprising to him when a Project Angel Food board member called one day: “Richard, we’re looking for a new leader. Would you consider…?”
“When you get a call like that,” Ayoub says, “your only answer is ‘Yes.’”
Within six months after taking the mantle, according to Ayoub, Project Angel Food had “raised an extra $650,000 above and beyond” budget.
Ayoub says 88% of the money the nonprofit raises “comes from individuals and from corporations and foundations.” “Only 12% comes from the government.”
So when a wealthy donor steps forward it can make a huge impact.
Prior to his death, singer George Michael was PAF’s single biggest donor, having given more than half a million dollars in total. Ayoub has “a very sweet story about him.”
“In 1993, PAF was getting an influx of people with AIDS and we were having tough financial times at the moment. We didn’t know if we were going to make payroll. Out of nowhere came an envelope. It said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing. Love, George.’”
A check for $25,000 was included. “And that check kept coming every single year until the day he died.”
A celebrity Blade readers may not expect to hear about is Miss “Cuchi Cuchi” herself.
Ayoub told a producer friend from his “Extra” days, “I need someone for Thanksgiving. And he said, ‘I can get Charo.’”
“I fell in love with her,” Ayoub admits. “When she was in the kitchen everyone was smiling. She knows how to make people feel good. She’s just a ball of energy.”
There may be a few things Blade readers just don’t know about Project Angel Food.
“Some people don’t realize,” Ayoub explains, “that we’ve expanded our mission beyond people living with HIV/AIDS to people living with every critical illness out there.” Also, every one of their meals is medically tailored to that illness. “So if you have a kidney problem, you have to have reduced potassium, phosphorous and sodium. Our meals are geared just for them.”
And other dietary restrictions are no problem. “We have vegetarian meals, gastrointestinal, heart healthy meals…39 different diet combinations.” Registered dietitians work with every client to make sure their meals are “exactly what they need.”
The most challenging aspect of Ayoub’s job is that “there are more and more people who need help.” “We’re only serving 1,300 people. I want to serve 3,000 people a day.”
That boils down to? You guessed it. “The biggest challenge is to raise enough money to reach capacity for this kitchen.”
How does PAF decide whom to help? “The criteria,” Ayoub explains, “is that you have a critical illness and you have mobility issues.”
“Some [clients] are in wheelchairs. Some of them are amputees. Some are attached to oxygen and they have a hard time shopping and cooking for themselves.” To provide an already-prepared meal that is healthy, not fast food, “That’s what spectacular about [what we do]. And it’s always been free.”