A rising sun illuminated a valley of concrete walls and brick facades in Los Angeles’ downtown arts district when the morning’s first car came into sight.
Two days before Thanksgiving, a gray minivan rolled to a stop at the end of a line of cones. Immediately, an army of volunteers swarmed to fill the open trunk.
One by one, they loaded boxes of organic pasta, bags of assorted pantry items, and packages of whole turkeys and ground beef. By the time they finished, the back of the vehicle was sagging, its rear suspension straining under the weight of an entire holiday feast.
As it pulled away, the workers from No Us Without You L.A. — a nonprofit organization founded last year after the start of the pandemic to help undocumented workers, especially those from the restaurant industry — laughed at the sight, a discernable result of their efforts at the very beginning of a recent food distribution event.
And on this day, a new yet familiar face was among the group.
Four years removed from an All-Star baseball career spent entirely with the Dodgers, here stood Andre Ethier — still guided by his love for L.A., still giving back to the city that gave so much to him.
“People in this community, people in this city, they rise and fall with how the team goes,” Ethier said, his orange flannel matching an orange “LA” emblemed Dodgers cap. “But the city rises and falls with the people that do this work too. That’s the truth.”
Undocumented workers from across the Southland, and particularly in the restaurant industry, have been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic the last year and a half.
Back of house jobs such as cooks and dishwashers largely disappeared when restaurants shut down last year, and have returned slowly ever since. Though most of those workers contributed to payroll and unemployment taxes, they weren’t eligible for unemployment protection or other government-funded benefits, leaving them vulnerable to financial and food insecurity.
That’s why Othón Nolasco and Damian Diaz, who run a bar consultancy firm together, decided to start No Us Without You last year. With help from chefs, restaurant owners and others in the food industry, the Boyle Heights-based nonprofit has grown from feeding 10 families in the beginning to currently distributing more than 160,000 pounds of food every week.
“It really is our turn to feed those who have fed us for years,” Nolasco said.
But, as the organization considered long-term plans, it knew it needed more help, more recognition.
Then one day, Nolasco got a call from a friend in the industry who told him Ethier had heard about their work and wanted to get involved.
“Obviously, Andre stepping up and helping us,” Nolasco said, surrounded by fellow workers and volunteers decked out in Dodgers hats, shirts and even one in a No. 16 Ethier jersey, “we needed that.”
Ethier was born and reared in Phoenix. He attended Arizona State. But after debuting with the Dodgers in 2006, Los Angeles quickly became the outfielder’s second home, the place he would spend all 12 seasons of his major league career.
“My adult life was spent here in L.A.,” he said. “It’s a long time I’ve been part of this.”
On the field, he was part of eight playoff teams and the Dodgers’ first National League pennant winner in 29 years. Off the field, he became infatuated with L.A.’s food scene, introducing him to corners of the city he never before knew.
He started a blog called “Dining with ‘Dre” to review local restaurants. At one of his favorite spots, the iconic Osteria Mozza in Hollywood, he joked he became the only person to get takeout, sneaking in through the back after games to pick up his go-to dish, the bucatini pasta.
“They would hook it up,” he said.
That experience allowed him to meet many back-of-house workers, too, opening his eyes to the unseen role they quietly played in the industry.
As the pandemic dragged on, Ethier started asking around about ways he could help. David Rosoff, the former general manager of Mozza, told him of the group led by Nolasco and Diaz. And last month, he started assisting with their food distributions.
It’s the beginning of a partnership Ethier says will continue into this upcoming baseball season, when he plans to feature in the charity’s videos, raffle off his dugout club seats to Dodgers games, and participate in other events to help the cause.
“It’s this serendipitous correlation,” he said. “The ones who aren’t seen — that you know they’re there, but we never think about, we never see — they’re the ones benefiting from this.”
During the recent event in the arts district, it was clear how much Ethier’s presence stirred excitement.
Fellow workers excitedly chatted with him between loads, laughing with the fan favorite they used to cheer on at Chavez Ravine.
“He was like everyone’s favorite Dodger,” Nolasco said, before adding with a chuckle, “You want to hate him because he’s handsome, a great player. But he’s like the nicest guy.”
Kim Muller, a local chef who was delivering loads of food to families who couldn’t get to the distribution site themselves, looked over at Ethier with wide eyes.
“I saw he was involved in person and was like, ‘Dude!’” she said with a laugh.
And the people receiving food called out from their car windows and waved in delight, thankful not only for the charity helping them get by, but now also the former Dodgers star bolstering its efforts.
“God bless you,” shouted one man in a silver sedan, flashing a toothy smile before driving away near the end of the day. “Gracias!”