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A helping hand, not just sitting around

Spotlight: Hart High graduate helps families through tough times with The Sitting Tree

Posted: May 1, 2010 11:07 p.m.
Updated: May 2, 2010 4:55 a.m.

From left, Brandon Stuart, Erik Lima and Vince Villanueva, the founders of The Sitting Tree, a nonprofit organization that serves needy families in Los Angeles County, including the Santa Clarita Valley. Stuart is a graduate of William S. Hart High School in Newhall.

 

When Brandon Stuart was growing up in Newhall, a tree tipped over in the backyard of his family’s ranch.

“The tree fell in a way that it created the perfect seat,” Stuart, a William S. Hart High graduate, recalled.

Much of his time was spent sitting on that tree, thinking through life and solving all its little problems.

Stuart, now a manager of marketing at E! Entertainment after graduating from the University of California, San Diego, is using that tree as the inspiration to help disadvantaged families through The Sitting Tree, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to providing assistance with hospitalization costs, donating school supplies for children, or giving groceries where they are needed.

The Sitting Tree, run by Stuart along with co-founders, Vince Villanueva and Erik Lima, became an official 501(3)(c) in 2009.

“We can be their place where problems diminish and their morality is raised,” Stuart said. “It has always been my nature to look out for people.”

Before becoming a nonprofit, Stuart and Villanueva began fundraising for people who truly needed help. Their first case was that of a 26-year-old personal trainer named Donny, who was diagnosed with leukemia. Donny’s parents were constantly driving him up to San Francisco to receive treatment.

Stuart and Villanueva decided to help and raised $1,200 for the cause. They bought several gas cards with those donations to aid Donny’s family in their costly travels.

“Seeing the parents’ faces was so inspirational,” Stuart says. “It was just a little taste in a small town, but it launched the question of ‘What next?’”

Donny’s family showed them the power of helping, so Stuart and Villanueva began to think bigger. Villanueva was the planner, and Stuart was the idea man, but they needed a logistics guy if they wanted to expand. Erik Lima soon joined the team, and The Sitting Tree was born.

Their mission evolved from Villanueva’s firsthand experience when his mom found out she had cancer. The situation was hard on the entire family, not just her, and so The Sitting Tree dedicated itself to helping families as a whole, instead of a single individual.

The foundation is entirely donation based and uses the funds for tangible items to give to families, such as gift cards for groceries or gas.

The recession hasn’t exactly made things easy, according to Stuart.

“These are tough times out there, and people don’t have extra money to throw around,” said Stuart. “And when you’re funded off that, it becomes very difficult.”

The trio has found, however, that many people are willing to step up, if not with their money, then with their time, skills, and social connections.

“If you have the motivation there is always some way to help,” Stuart said.

By embracing social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, The Sitting Tree has been able to get the organization’s name out in the public and acquire volunteers for its many projects.

“There are not a lot of nonprofits with their doors open, but we are very open to people being a part of our cause,” Stuart said.

In addition to working with private clients, The Sitting Tree holds annual and monthly community events. In April, it was as screening of “How To Train Your Dragon” at Los Angeles Children’s Hospital.

“We are a boutique nonprofit,” Stuart said with a laugh. “So we are more artistic than other nonprofits.”

Traditional charity projects get a Sitting Tree twist. For Thanksgiving dinner, instead of cooking the meal, The Sitting Tree gives a mother everything she will need to cook dinner, so she knows she can still care for her family.

Accounts at local restaurants are set up so Sitting Tree clients can dine there with dignity.

“You can’t fail, with each person we affect, we succeed,” says Stuart, “It’s pure success every time.”

Stuart, Villanueva and Lima are currently approaching corporations for financial support and they have already made their 2011 initiative to write grants in order to let The Sitting Tree grow.

“It is important to carve out a part of your life for this,” Stuart said.

This is no small task for Stuart as he is constantly working, making music with his band, and writing. His first novel, “The Currency of Time,” was self-published and can now be found on www.amazon.com.

Villanueva’s mother and Donny both passed away earlier this year, but Stuart is still inspired by their optimism and is determined to help other families in the same situations.

“It’s not a job to back out on,” he said. “I’m invested in it emotionally and I want to see it grow.”    

For more information on The Sitting Tree, visit www.thesittingtree.org or become a fan on Facebook at facebook.com/thesittingtree.

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