Lava Mae transforms the way communities see and serve their unhoused neighbors — helping to restore dignity, rekindle optimism, and fuel a sense of opportunity for people who experience homelessness.
Here in our feature “Grateful Changemakers,” we celebrate programs and projects that serve as beacons of gratefulness. These efforts elevate the values of grateful living and illuminate their potential to transform both individuals and communities. Join us in appreciating the inspiring and catalyzing contribution these Changemakers offer to shaping a more grateful world.
Lava Mae is on a mission to transform the way communities around the globe see and serve our unhoused neighbors. Based in San Francisco, Lava Mae delivers showers and toilets on wheels to the street and, through its pop-up care villages, provides other critical services and resources for people experiencing homelessness. Through its buildIT toolkit, the nonprofit has supported the replication of its model in communities around the world.
Though Lava Mae is a social services organization, its heart is in the hospitality business. Lava Mae refers to the people they serve as their guests; they are treated with respect, and everyone in the organization works hard to make sure guests leave feeling better than when they arrived. At the core of Lava Mae is the belief that people everywhere will rise to the level of care they are offered. Founder Doniece Sandoval tells us more about how Lava Mae creates space for the opportunity that unfolds when people are treated with dignity and wholehearted love.
When the driver said, “Welcome to the land of broken dreams,” my first thought was that not a single person on the street had dreamed they would grow up to be homeless.
What sparked the founding/creation of Lava Mae?
My inspiration began with a cab ride through San Francisco’s Tenderloin district—which has the highest, most visible concentration of unhoused people in the city. When the driver said, “Welcome to the land of broken dreams,” my first thought was that not a single person on the street had dreamed they would grow up to be homeless. My next thought was the memory of how close my family once came to losing our home.
Not long after, I came across a young woman crying that she’d never be clean, and then I heard that the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority was retiring old buses. The idea for mobile hygiene and Radical Hospitality was born, and 2013, I founded the organization. Lavame is the Spanish word for “wash me,” which felt too harsh. I grew up in Texas where vehicles are referred to in the feminine as in “isn’t she a beauty,” so I decided to try and make it a woman’s name by calling it Lava Mae.
We began by converting public transportation buses into showers and toilets on wheels to deliver hygiene and rekindle dignity for unhoused neighbors in San Francisco. In 2014 the first Lava Mae mobile unit hit the streets.
How does Lava Mae fill a need for the people it serves and communities as a whole?
Access to water and sanitation is a basic human right, but it’s about so much more than just getting clean or the ability to take a shower and use the toilet in private. It’s about reconnecting people with their dignity. And dignity is a two-way street. It’s as much about how you feel about yourself as how people treat you.
Our guests tell us they “feel human again for the first time in a long time”…
To be dirty in our society is to be unwanted and unwelcome. Since we launched our service, we’ve heard repeatedly what a difference it’s made. Our guests tell us they “feel human again for the first time in a long time” or that they’ve recovered their sense of self-worth and optimism, especially as we deliver our service with Radical Hospitality.
Lava Mae transforms the way communities see and serve their unhoused neighbors — helping to restore dignity, rekindle optimism, and fuel a sense of opportunity for people who experience homelessness. Radical Hospitality is powerful, and when people — passersby, volunteers, etc. — witness it, they too are transformed. Honoring our shared humanity — truly seeing each other — is something we all need, and when we see it happening around us, it changes us, and it feeds us.
Before Lava Mae, communities didn’t think about whether or not people experiencing homelessness had access to showers or toilets. It just wasn’t on their radar. Food, clothing, shelter — those were top priorities. By raising awareness about the paucity and executing on a crazy idea to convert a public transportation bus into showers and toilets on wheels, we disrupted the status quo in a way that’s created ripples around the globe.
How do you see Lava Mae as embodying what it means to live gratefully?
I read once that the key to living gratefully was to focus on “the goodness of life”. For me, for Lava Mae, the heart of goodness comes from service — expanding the focus of your life beyond yourself — sharing your self, gifts, and talents with others.
One of my favorite quotes is from Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” That, to me, is living gratefully.
How does Lava Mae inspire gratefulness in others and related actions (love, kindness, compassion, etc.)?
We believe that people are basically good — that they generally care but may not know how to help. Our goal is to make it easy. We say yes when people want to engage; there’s always a way to use their talents, ideas, and connections for good.
We hear all the time that once someone knows about how others struggle, they never take a shower without remembering to be grateful that they can.
Our efforts to raise visibility about the lack of access to hygiene for our unhoused neighbors has also served as a reminder to those of us who are housed how fortunate we are. We hear all the time that once someone knows about how others struggle, they never take a shower without remembering to be grateful that they can.
To this day we talk about watching guest’s reactions. It’s as though one person goes in to take a shower and a totally different – completely renewed, hopeful – person emerges. We see tears of gratitude and radiant smiles of joy daily. Joy begets joy; at least we think so as our guest’s responses feed us and our volunteers. They spur us to come back day after day even when — or maybe especially when — it’s hard.
What is the lasting impact of Lava Mae and its offerings?
It’s threefold: 1) that we’ve made the broader population aware of the issue (lack of access), 2) that we’ve innovated a solution that’s now being deployed in communities around the globe (157 and counting!), and 3) Radical Hospitality.
Here are a few testimonials from our guests on the impact of Lava Mae:
“I feel like a human being again for the first time in a long time!’
“The shower was amazing but being seen, being welcomed by the team lifted my spirits.”
“I got a job! Better than that, I connected with people (Lava Mae team) that really care about me. Haven’t had that in a long time.”
Our team holds space for our guests and all their trauma, which can be unbelievably challenging and emotionally draining. We’ve all learned the value of active listening, of true acceptance without judgement.
What are some of the common barriers and obstacles that arise for Lava Mae? How are they addressed?
Our biggest challenges are twofold:
1). Negative attitudes towards homelessness that result in punitive ordinances that criminalize homelessness. Our guests are already traumatized (some from birth); these attitudes and ordinances strip them of their humanity and send a message that they are unworthy. Our team holds space for our guests and all their trauma, which can be unbelievably challenging and emotionally draining. We’ve all learned the value of active listening, of true acceptance without judgement. People feel safe to be who they are. They don’t have to pretend they’re having a good day. We take the good with the bad as long as it’s shared respectfully. We put lots of supports in place to ensure our staff and volunteers don’t fall into compassion fatigue and burn out.
2). Funding is growing increasingly challenging for ‘emergency services’ as the focus is on housing first, which is vital but will take, sometimes, years to create. In the interim, services that catch and keep people from sliding further down are critical. There are essentially three buckets of service: Prevention, Emergency Response, and Housing.
We fall under emergency response, which includes homeless shelters, drop-in centers, meal programs, outreach services, etc.
There’s a belief that these services “trap” people; that they make it easy for people to remain unhoused, but this is ludicrous, especially in cities like San Francisco where housing is nonexistent and without emergency services, people would die on the street or in their cars.
How does gratefulness inspire you to make change in the world?
I feel incredibly blessed by life; even the challenging moments are opportunities to grow and become a better person. I want to share what I’ve been so abundantly given. I work hard to keep my heart open and beam out love every moment that I can.
Someone told me recently that everything we do is born either from fear or love. I don’t always get it right by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m working hard to respond from love as much as I can. If that changes the world, that’s fabulous.
How does Lava Mae plan to grow?
We’re scaling the model and not the organization. Since we first hit the streets, Lava Mae has seen extraordinary worldwide interest in replicating its program and has fielded more than 4,000 inquiries from city agencies, nonprofits, governments, refugee aid organizations, entrepreneurs, and others. In response, in 2017 Lave Mae launched the buildIT platform, which offers a free DIY tool kit and forum that helps anyone, anywhere launch a mobile hygiene program in their community. The kit covers everything from getting started to finding funders to taking Radical Hospitality to the street. Additionally, Lava Mae provides hands-on training for effectively operating a mobile hygiene service and safely managing guest behavior. When possible, it connects replicators to resources, including funding opportunities.
Through its replication tool kit, Lava Mae’s goal is to build a network of communities that are launching and scaling Lava Mae-designed programs that, ultimately, serve 100,000 unhoused individuals around the globe by 2024.
If you could share one message for people who are involved with Lava Mae, what would that be?
Truly seeing and honoring the highest in each other is what matters most. It’s the key to our true potential and to resolving the injustices that plague our society.
If Lava Mae could share one message about living gratefully, what would it be?
Be open and fully present to life. Everything, especially the hard stuff, is a gift. Make space to welcome and learn from all that comes your way.
To read more about the transformative work of Lava Mae, visit the website: lavamae.org
To learn about other Grateful Changemakers, visit: Grateful Changemakers
Do you know of a project/program that elevates the values of grateful living? If so, we invite you to nominate them for our Grateful Changemaker article series.