Most people spend their birthdays indulging themselves, but Justin Baldoni has spent his last six birthdays giving back to the homeless instead.
“You can get somebody to do anything you want for your birthday, but if I were just to reach out and say, ‘Hey who wants to go feed the homeless?’ nobody would show up except a few friends,” says the Jane the Virgin star, 31. “So I thought it would be really cool if, for my birthday, that was my thing.”
Baldoni has spent his past birthdays delivering food and clothes to those in need, but this year he decided to kick it up a notch.
“We wanted to try an experiment and plan the first ever Carnival of Love in the worst place in the country, Skid Row,” he said.
The inaugural carnival – planned with the help of Union Rescue Mission – was an overwhelming success.
“What we found was that people were so willing and wanted to come out,” says Baldoni. “We had almost 300 volunteers and 800 homeless come out, and for four hours in the worst place in the country, you couldn’t tell the difference between the two because they were all mingling together, laughing, loving each other.”
The carnival included a clothes donation area, a rock-climbing wall, a bouncy castle, face painting, caricature artists, music, pet grooming and a foot-washing station.
“It’s important to address those problems that are happening a few blocks away from us because those are things we can actually physically touch,” says Baldoni. “The point was never to try to end homelessness or fix the problem – because truthfully it’s far more complicated than we could ever realize – but we can spread love and we can connect with people. Sometimes all people need is hope.”
For more of our interview with Baldoni, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday