People in caps, surgical masks and blue shirts prepare and wrap food in an industrial kitchen

CHLA certified registered nurse anesthetists volunteering in the Project Angel Food kitchen

Serving the Community

CHLA Team Members’ Volunteerism Powers Community Health Projects

The hospital’s “Good Neighbor” principle is putting boots on the ground to help expand food access, beautify neighborhoods and seed flourishing community gardens.

When the pandemic hit in force in 2020, Judy Koempel, CRNA, MSN, a nurse anesthetist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, began looking inward. “I thought, ‘I need to find more purpose in my life,’” she says. “I wanted to feel that I was sharing and helping others—not just my immediate family and friends.”

A medium-light skin toned woman in a KN-95 mask, Children's Hospital Los Angeles cap and plastic apron stands in a kitchen.
Judy Koempel, CRNA, MSN, in the Project Angel Food kitchen

Koempel signed on for the hospital’s then-newly launched Community Impact Champions Network (CICN). In the four years since, this powerful volunteer network has grown to 1,042 registered team members, including employees, faculty and contract workers from nearly 250 departments, divisions and programs across CHLA.

“Many of our team members want to go above and beyond the work they do at the hospital and take that commitment into the community,” says Project Manager Olga Taylor, CHLA Office of Community Affairs. “Volunteering is a way of filling your cup—it brings joy to the giver.”

At CHLA, “above and beyond” means putting serious human power behind the hospital’s longstanding commitment to Good Neighbor Initiatives that promote community wellness and healthy environments.

“As an anchor institution, we are part of the community, and a resource to the communities that surround us,” says Susan Gantan, MPH, Senior Program Manager for Community Affairs, Government and Public Policy. “We know health begins in the community, and has to do with where you live, your access to green space, access to resources and more.”

To start: just show up

The call to serve drew Koempel to volunteer with a time-honored community nonprofit that shares CHLA’s dedication to improving food access—Project Angel Food. “You can always find excuses not to volunteer,” says Koempel, “but I realized all I had to do is show up.”

Sue Martinez, DNP, RN, NE-BC, CPN, Patient Care Services Manager, 5 East, felt that same sense of mission when she volunteered with CICN in the pandemic’s early days. “We all were so isolated then,” she says. “It was a way to give back.”

Three women in hats and surgical masks stand behind a cart filled with paper bags of food. Above them, a sign reads: Project Angel Food - Annenberg Foundation Meal Delivery Center.
L-R: Annie Yeremian, Sue Martinez and Erin Schmidt volunteering with Project Angel Food

Martinez started delivering meals for Project Angel Food in 2020 and hasn’t stopped. Each menu item is guided by 13 different medically tailored meal plans—an attention to care that appeals to Martinez.

“We do the best we can to achieve better medical outcomes and shorter hospital stays,” says Holly Fishbein, Volunteer Operations Coordinator at Project Angel Food, “because we believe food is medicine.”

Since its beginnings 35 years ago, Project Angel Food has served at least 17 million meals.

Martinez is one of a cadre of drivers who cover 4,700 square miles across L.A. County. “The gratitude people feel for the meals brought to them re-sets me,” she says. “In that moment, I am grateful, too, that we are able to put food on our own table, grateful for the life we have.”

Improving food access is a priority focus for the CICN, which also provides volunteers for free produce distributions, in partnership with the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council and Rick’s Produce, along with supporting other food giveaways, such as holiday turkeys and hot meals from groups like the Boys & Girls Club.

Also helping bring food to the table is the hospital’s collaboration with community gardens like the City Garden at Los Angeles Community College and East Hollywood Community Garden. “We focus our efforts on key areas of community need, including those further highlighted by the pandemic—such as food and a healthy environment,” says Gantan.

“We identify our top priorities through the hospital’s Community Health Needs Assessment,” adds Taylor. The assessment, which occurs every three years, includes a comprehensive community survey, which informs CHLA’s Community impact initiatives.

Volunteers critical

Prior to the pandemic, Project Angel Food served 1,300 meals daily. With the influence of COVID-19 and other factors, it ramped up to serving 2,600 clients daily, “an exponential increase in a short period,” says Robert Cliff-Malagon, the organization’s Manager of Volunteer Services.

Volunteers mean everything to the success of the enterprise. “It’s an untenable program without volunteer efforts,” says Cliff-Malagon. “We couldn’t do this without Children’s Hospital and our other community partners.”

Koempel takes on a variety of tasks in the Project Angel Food kitchen, helping to package and even prepare meals. An avid cook, she says her favorite moments are when one of the chefs asks her to act as sous chef and she can experience the process “from start to finish.”

She and Martinez have taken part in other CICN opportunities, including free produce distributions, community wellness fairs and neighborhood beautification, such as the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council and Los Angeles River cleanups.

Individual CHLA team members form the bulk of CICN volunteers, but groups who volunteer together are growing. In 2023 and 2024, Koempel rallied other certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs) at CHLA to devote part of their national CRNA Week to volunteerism, first at a Los Feliz neighborhood cleanup, then at Project Angel Food. “Afterward, they all said it was so much fun,” she says.

A group of men and women pose on a sidewalk in front of a colorful wall, near bags of trash.
A group of CHLA certified registered nurse anesthetists volunteering for neighborhood cleanup

Martinez is planning a similar group effort at Project Angel Food with other CHLA nurse leaders. She enjoys meeting fellow volunteers. “We’re so quick to say, ‘People don’t care.’” But people do care. There are people with genuine, caring hearts in our community.”

Koempel agrees. “Sometimes I hear the news and it seems that people are selfish and mean,” she says. “But that’s not true. There are a lot of really good people out there.”

“I thank Children’s Hospital for making this one of our missions,” she adds. “Not just helping people within the community by giving medical care but helping the community they’re based in, reaching outward. To me, that’s pretty amazing.”

Find out more about community impact efforts at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.