By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
“I still read that article,” John Muto told me over waffles, eggs and bacon at the Pacific Diner. John still looks as if he had just graduated from high school with his cherub-like face. It doesn’t even look as if he shaves yet since his skin is so smooth. Sitting across from him in a well-worn booth, I realized, was the first time I’d seen John ― in person, at least ― in about five years; he is a young man now. Partly through reconnecting again but also his desire to talk about the cool projects he’s been working on, his demeanor conveyed a sense of brimming excitedness.
Above is RLn’s followup interview with John Muto. Photo by Terelle Jerricks
These days John divides his time between his work coordinating youth programs for the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation and developing the budding nonprofit he co-founded, Heal Los Angeles. Nonetheless, he still lives in San Pedro.
The article to which John was referring was a 2014 profile our former assistant editor, Zamna Avila, wrote for Random Lengths about graduating high school students who had participated in the College Bound program at the San Pedro Boys and Girls Club.
John was a senior at San Pedro High School who had collected $12,000 in scholarship money. During my interview with him, John told me about a couple of his dreams ― one was to work in the community relations department of the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation; another was to give back to the Boys and Girls Club. Could anyone have understood then that John was speaking his future into existence before our very eyes?
As coordinator of the L.A. Dodgers Foundation youth programs John holds an umbrella over two programs: one is reviving baseball in inner cities and the other consists of Dodgers Dream Field programs. Through these two programs, he has been able to continue the work of cultivating the love baseball in younger generations of Angelenos while simultaneously rehabilitating neighborhood parks in disadvantaged communities in Los Angeles. Leland Park in San Pedro was one of the beneficiaries of the Dodgers’ largess.
“Yeah man, we got them a new scoreboard that’s like a mini version of the one at Dodger Stadium, a new dugout and new seats,” John said, and as I watched this 25-year-old gleefully explain how the Dodgers Foundation was servicing 10,500 kids between the ages of 5 and 18 in 85 locations throughout Los Angeles was contagious. The bubbling excitement of doing good deeds and spreading good seed.
John is also in charge of events such as Dodger Days, a carnival-themed health fair to provide free vision screening and glasses to children in participating parks.
John spoke at length about the various ways the Dodger organization has been giving back to the Angelenos and San Pedrans in particular, including giving away free baseball equipment to coaches with 13 kids on their teams, giving away free or discounted tickets to Dodgers games.
The interview at the diner was supposed to be for a story about a local boy making good, not to plug the rich and successful organization for which he works. But the truth is that his personal achievements are intrinsically linked to incalculable benefits to others. For myself and editors who have reported his story, John’s unwavering demonstrations of love for family and community was always what made him a stand-out. Eighteen-year-old John spoke at length about how his older brother, Kenny, changed his life trajectory. Seven years older than John, Kenny is autistic and has special needs. At the time, the brothers went to school together. Special needs students can go to high school for five years.
Particularly poignant was John’s recollection of his sophomore year, attending school with his brother made him so self-conscious he rejected his brother ― and how that reaction filled John with guilt. Eventually, it was baseball that provided the safe space where John could connect with Kenny, where they could become true brothers.
The lesson he learned from that episode seems to have reverberated throughout his life. Aware of his family’s financial challenges, John attended Los Angeles Harbor College to complete his general education requirements in its honors program before transferring to a four-year university — at the time his dream school was UCLA.
“It’s my life, I can do whatever I want with it,” he observed. “As a career I want something that I love to do every day, not wake up with, ‘Oh, crap, I’m going to work.’”
When RLn interviewed him last, John was interning at the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy in Compton. At the time, he said he believed networking within the organization might help him land the right job in the future. It turned out that he went beyond shrewd pragmatism to literally seize opportunity when he saw it.
John was wrapping up his breakdown of the Dodgers Foundation’s great contributions to disadvantaged communities, when his expression changed and he paused.
“I have a great story to tell about how I got the job with Dodger Foundation,” he said. “I literally got in there on my hands and knees.”
I’m sure the expression on my face indicated he should continue.
At 18 years of age, John said he was not the same person he was before he joined the College Bound Program at the Boys and Girls Club. “He is wiser, more respectful and less selfish. He’s a team player,” Avila wrote in 2014.
What we didn’t and couldn’t have known at the time was that he still had challenges to overcome.
Tested in the Fire
John recounted the trying period when his father lost his job. Our reporting made the family’s hardship a public matter. But the story was more painful than we knew. While John was completing coursework at Harbor College and preparing to transfer to a university, his father was diagnosed with brain cancer.
John described that period of his life as filled with worry for his father and family’s financial well being and what he could do to alleviate it.
When he graduated from San Pedro High School, John said he planned to maintain close ties to Boys and Girls Club. He kept that promise. We quoted him saying “I will work my butt off to get money for the Boys and Girls job.”
When he found himself in position at the Dodger’s Foundation to help local nonprofits, the Boys and Girls Club was one of the recipients.
John recounted a pivotal moment that eventually led to his employment with the Dodgers Foundation.
During the middle of the season while he was a high school senior, John went to a Dodgers game with a buddy. They got to the game a little early when, when he decided to see who could talk to about getting a job with the Dodgers.
John recounted quizzing the ushers about the location of the Dodgers administration offices, whereby he was informed he had to go to level 5. When he gets there, he inquires further and was told that the offices were at the end of a long hallway.
“I’m going down and I see that down the hall there are these double glass doors and there are suites and you need tickets to go beyond that point. But we caught a good day, John said. “Because there were a bunch of people in a huge line…these are pretty big doors, it’s not like security, so I went over to the left, got on my hands and knees and just started crawling and continued crawling and sure enough I was clenching my teeth and toes expecting to hear, ‘hey you,’ but I kept crawling and crawling until I finally got up and just started walking. I pretended I was deaf because I was like no one was going to stop me. When you’re on the suite level at level 5, that’s where the offices are and there’s ushers outside.”
John continued walking, and asking ushers which door the office workers were using. John was directed to a middle door. But as one can imagine, the Dodgers executive suites had a lot of security, so John made it a point to duck into the bathrooms ever so often. He did this for about 20 minutes, while keeping an eye for any one coming out of that middle door.
“Then finally I saw this tall white gentleman who had just walked out of that middle door,” John said. “I ran up to him said, hi my name is John and I really want to work for the Dodgers and I want to do something community orientated and help out others using the Dodgers brand.’”
“That gentleman turned out to be the foundation’s senior director of programs and fundraising,” David Brennan.
Brennan, likely caught off guard, told John about the Dodgers Foundation RBI program, which was slated to launch the following year.
Through all the drama of getting that far up into the executive suites, John forgot to get a business card and lost contact with Brennan, a minor set back it turns out. The next time Brennan saw John was during a Dodgers Foundation interview process a year later when he was sitting across the table from him.
John recounted Brennan looking at him with a, “don’t-I-know-you-from-somewhere” expression on his face and John staring right back with “I-know-you-remember-me,” expression on his face. Needless to say, through luck and by pluck, John got the job.
John lists his mom, Michael Jackson, his Uncle Tom and Mr. Rogers on his Mount Rushmore of people he most admires.
John is a Michael Jackson fan. He loves his music. He loved Michael’s dancing. But most of all, he loved Michael’s humanitarian efforts. John didn’t address the child molestation allegations against the late King of Pop in a recently released documentary and I didn’t ask him. John said he at one time wanted to work for Michael Jackson’s Heal the World Foundation, a nonprofit that once spread millions of dollars around the globe to help children threatened by war and disease. But the Foundation closed not long after Jackson’s death.
John kept thinking about the work, wanting the vision to be more local than global, something with more immediate impact and closer to home. Through Twitter, he learned that Prince, Michael Jackson’s son, was going to attend the same school as himself — Loyola Marymount University ― a rumor that was then confirmed by the Jackson heir himself through his twitter account.
Before learning of Prince Jackson’s pending attendance at the school, John had come to a crossroads. His family’s financial situation hadn’t changed and his father was diagnosed with brain cancer. Home weighed heavy on John’s mind. He thought of leaving school altogether and just going to work to support his family. Jackson’s attendance at Loyola Marymount turned out to be the encouragement he needed to continue school.
Before long, John spotted Prince on campus on his way to a club meeting one evening.
“If you’ve ever been to LMU you know it’s very dark at night with very dim lights,” John said. “Then I hear this kind of loud laugh, and if you know Prince, he has this distinct laugh, and I was like, ‘oh my god, I think that’s Prince Jackson.’ I was kind of walking along with him, but I’m behind a bush, kind of. I was trying to make sure it was him before I look like a fool and it’s not him.”
John gathered up his courage and introduced himself to Prince, gushing over the late King of Pop’s legacy and the pop star’s impact on his life. Before concluding his spiel, John told Prince his idea of building a nonprofit intended to carry on Michael’s humanitarian legacy.
Prince’s response was, “Put it in writing.” John, who by this time had gained some experience in writing proposals, put one together in a matter of several hours, one that was well sourced and researched. John didn’t know when he was going to see Prince again, so he put a copy of the proposal into bound folder and carried it around in his backpack for when that day came. It just so happened that that day was the following day. It was two to three months later that Prince text John and said, “Let’s do it.”
John’s vision has a multi-year, multiphase roll-out plan that’s modeled in part after the College Bound program, but he intends for the foundation to reach even deeper into the lives of disadvantaged children of Los Angeles. One of the facets of his vision is that it will teach healthy eating and cooking practices and instill healthy active lifestyles in Los Angeles youth.
After John brought me up to speed on all that he was working on and delivered the good news that his father is cancer-free, I was brimming with excitement for him and rooting just as hard for him now as I was when I first met him in 2014. Back then, he told us, “It’s my life, I can do whatever I want with it.”
Well, just look at him now.