By Mira Reverente
Manzar Amini remembers the moment like it was yesterday. “I had met Sara, this young single mother. She had just had surgery for eye cancer. She was crying, so I asked her why. She said she had just lost her job and apartment,” said Amini of the encounter in 1992 at the UCLA Medical Center.“I gave her all the money I had in my purse, but I knew it wasn’t enough and her problems were more complex than that. I had to do more.”
Amini, a Westlake Village resident whose sister is a single parent, got launched the Universal Love Foundation (ULF), a nonprofit group geared towards helping working single parents.
Amini has no official number but estimates that there are countless people out there like Sara and her sister, who have nowhere to run when moments of hopelessness or crisis hit. “It is an important social issue,” she said. “There are many available programs for abandoned children, homeless people, but can you think of any for single parents?”
She also wants to correct the popular myth that divorce is the lone cause of single parenthood. Widowhood or mental illness are the other leading causes. She said, “When one parent is institutionalized, that also causes single parenthood.”
Belinda LaRosa (not her real name) thought she had it all until she got divorced. She had to move out of her house, lost her business and often didn’t know from where to get money for groceries or gas. For the first time in her life, she was faced with an eviction notice.
“Mostly, Manzar was there to listen, a shoulder to cry on and someone to have tea with,” said the Thousand Oaks resident and mom of two. “I do remember one particularly difficult time around Christmas, and I didn’t have money for presents. The foundation helped me with that.”
LaRosa decided to go back to school to earn a more useful degree in the medical field. “Because of my outdated skills, I couldn’t even get a pizza delivery job,” she said. Extended family members help with childcare duties whenever she is at school.
She was pleasantly surprised recently when Amini presented her with a check for $1,000, to be used towards her tuition. “It just opened this deep well of tears,” said LaRosa.
Aside from scholarships, ULF has various programs in place for people like LaRosa. “I’ll make referrals for jobs, counseling, legal services, car purchases, groceries, financial assistance, you name it,” said the 73-year-old indefatigable founder.“I’m constantly on the phone or answering emails from all over the country and all over the world.” Amini credits her vast network of friends, business associates and fellow volunteers for keeping ULF going for the past 15 years.
Shirley Kauffman, Ph.D., is one of them. A licensed marriage and family therapist with a practice in Agoura Hills, Kauffman sees a lot of single parents referred to her by Amini for free. Ongoing issues include depression, stress, adjustment, suicidal thoughts, brought on mostly by financial challenges associated with sudden single parenthood. “After first ensuring they are safe, one of the first things I tell them is that they are not powerless,” she said. “They’re not stuck and there are options.”
She added, “So I listen and we work on problem-solving and getting through their grief. It could take months or years, and it’s different for everyone.”
Friends with Amini for the past 14 years, Kauffman considers herself blessed, which is why giving back is so important. “I’m just glad to be there for them in their moment of need. That’s what gives me immense satisfaction,” she said.
Funding is scarce and Amini often has to dip into her personal bank account to help a single parent in crisis. “My husband is used to it,” she said with a chuckle.
There are two major fundraisers every year. One is a gala around Christmastime. In between fundraisers, donations and grant money are few and far between. “Manzar is constantly on the phone begging friends for donations and no one seems to say ‘no’ to her,” said Kauffman. “What we’re doing is really grass roots fundraising.”
On Mother’s Day, a small group of volunteers will trek to Children’s Hospital in LA to visit moms of sick children, bringing them treat bags. At a separate event but around the same time of year, the foundation honors a “Mother (or Father) of the Year,” nominated by peers.
For the future, Amini would like to expand their programs to include transitional housing, more readily available group therapy and even their own office building. “I know it will happen and I’m also hoping the work we do will be more sustainable through more volunteers and more local connections,” she said.