The January 21 ribbon cutting for the Los Angeles MA Center in Redondo Beach.
Amma, or “Mother,” was born Mata Amritanandamayi in India in 1953. She is a Hindu leader and humanitarian known as the “hugging saint.”
“Amma has hugged over 33 million people,” Diana Ho told me, sitting in the office of the new MA (Mata Amritanandamayi )Center on Catalina Avenue in Redondo Beach. “She has been known to hug for 18 hours straight.”
Ho is one of more than 40 volunteers who have taken on the project of creating a space for Amma’s work in Los Angeles. L.A. has had a strong Amma community for 15 years without a center. In 2007, Amma approved a proposal to build a facility in Southern California, and the Redondo Beach location is now the ninth MA Center in North America.
“Every center in North America is different because the community that it serves is different,” Ho told me. “But there are common programs that all of the centers provide.”
At the core of Amma’s work is the “Mother’s Kitchen.” Volunteers in the center cook, deliver and serve meals to the community’s needy populations, including the homeless, the poor and women in danger. Every MA Center also participates in “Green Friends,” a sustainability program that teaches the community how to grow and cook their own vegetables. Finally, each location teaches “Integrated Amitra Meditaton” technique, or IAM, 20 or 30 minute meditation practices that volunteers teach for free.
“One of the centers is offering the 20 minute meditation class to returning veterans,” said Ho. “They are seeing great results. Meditation is known to be one of the best treatments for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
When the time came to start looking for a location to build the MA Center in Los Angeles, volunteers studied over 70 sites before coming upon the Redondo location.
“One of our volunteers, Carla Cohen, saw that this building was for sale,” she said. “It was an old club for the Fraternal Order of the Eagles.”
The building, a 1949 art deco gem, was in disrepair but had great potential and a beautiful seaside setting. The biggest challenge was adhering to the guidelines of the Redondo Beach Historical Society.
“Because it was a historic building, we had to be sure to follow the historic preservation rules and had to have a architectural historian document all of the changes,” Ho explained. “Andrea Galvin came in and helped us sensitively treat the building.”
The result is a completely renovated, two-story, 16,000 square foot facility with natural light, ocean views, a commercial-grade kitchen and two large meeting rooms. The design remains true to its art deco roots and maintains the aesthetic of “streamline moderne” with curved lines and long, clean lines.
While the new MA Center is the work of talented professionals, including Manhattan Beach architect Patrick Killen, many Amma volunteers aided in the process.
“Volunteers from all walks of life came together on this,” said Ho. “We would get together every weekend, anywhere from ten to 40 of us. We encouraged volunteers to do as much as they could. We were totally in bliss every Saturday, doing all of these jobs, making moldings.”
Volunteers find their way to Amma’s teachings in various ways. For Ho, it happened in 2001 when she saw a photo of Amma at a friend’s house.
“My friend told me that it was Amma and that she was coming to California in a few weeks,” she said. “So I went to Northern California to meet her. She gives these spiritual embraces. And then what really drew me in was the 2004 tsunami. It affected India so tragically. I went online and saw Amma was already responding with food and aid and housing even before the Indian government could. It inspired me how one organization could be so impactful.”
All of the volunteers have day jobs and devote their time off to Amma’s work. Ho is a full time business consultant.
“It enriches your life to serve others and relieve suffering,” Ho said. “Amma’s focus is to love, serve and show compassion.”
Each MA Center has its own board of directors and functions according to the bylaws outlined in its charter and according to the regulations of its local government. They subsist on private donations to their non-profit organization and also raise money by selling food and spiritual books and gifts.
The Redondo Beach MA Center had their ribbon cutting ceremony on January 21 amongst 200 distinguished guests. Public officials, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Congressman Henry Waxman, presented welcome letters and commendations.
“Our work is only just beginning,” said Ron Gottsegen, president of the MA Center of L.A., at the ceremony. “Now it is up to us, from this beautiful home, to serve the people who need our help.”
The center is in the planning and programing stage and will soon be hosting open houses to welcome the community and invite new volunteers.
When I asked Ms. Ho about how locals could get involved with the center, she raised an eyebrow and smiled.
“Be careful what you wish for, my dear,” she said. “Everyone is a potential volunteer.”