"That human connection is sometimes more important than the food. It shows that somebody cares, Alan Pinel tells PEOPLE

By Cathy Free
Updated March 03, 2016 04:00 PM
Credit: Manny Murguia

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Alan Pinel teaches salsa dancing, but on the third Thursday of every month, you’ll find him opening five-gallon cans of the spicy stuff and mixing it with frijoles, cheese and rice to make more than 1,000 burritos to hand out to Los Angeles’ downtown homeless population.

The founder of The Burrito Project in South Pasadena, Pinel, 43, is usually joined by 50 or 60 volunteers who spend several hours saut ing vegetables, dicing avocados and warming tortillas before making deliveries from 10 p.m. to midnight in skid row homeless camps that most people go out of their way to avoid.

“On burrito day, they’re grateful and know we’re coming,” says Pinel, who was inspired to start his nonprofit after somebody handed him a free burrito one day when he was walking through a park in San Francisco. “It’s a nice break for the homeless from peanut butter and jelly. It’s hard to find a person who doesn’t like bean-and-cheese burritos.”

Since rolling out his Burrito Project with a handful of volunteers and 100 burritos in 2006, Pinel’s idea has taken off, with more than 100 similar operations now going across the country.

“If I can be the umbrella and the inspiration, why not?'” Pinel, who also hands out bottled water, blankets, toiletries and clothing, tells PEOPLE. “I’d like to see a Burrito Project in every city in America. It’s such an easy thing to do and makes such a difference to those who need it. Anybody who wants to copy this idea is welcome to it.”

After volunteering with Pinel for one night last year, Brenda de River, 54, a Los Angeles community activist, decided to start her own Burrito Project in her Echo Park neighborhood.

“Alan assisted us with the whole process, from going grocery shopping to guiding us through the prep work and distribution,” de River tells PEOPLE. “He’s so unpretentious and unassuming, but has created a movement of people who share his passion. He’s able to bring people together from all walks of life to contribute to people in our community who are struggling to survive.”

Getting to know the people that many walk past without a second glance has been humbling, says de River.

“The people we meet are gracious and thankful that somebody would take the time to prepare a homemade burrito, provide water and bedding, and mostly, recognize their humanity,” she says. “Meeting and interacting with our homeless neighbors also reminds us of our own good fortune.”

“It’s so clear that Alan does this from his heart and in the spirit of giving back to the community,” adds Tom Mulligan, a retired natural healer from Los Angeles who has helped every Thursday for the past two years. “He’s not out for fame or glory – he just wants to help people. It’s a joy to be a part of something like that.”

Pinel grew up with five younger siblings in Los Angeles County and says he was motivated to help the downtrodden because of the example set by his parents, Alan Pinel Sr., a city building inspector, and Jeannie, a secretary.

“My mother always taught us to give away the three T’s – our time, talent and treasure,” he tells PEOPLE. “So that was always in my mind. And my dad was always helping people to change flat tires and telling us it was necessary to share what we had. Whenever we saw homeless people, he’d have us take them to McDonald’s and buy them something to eat.”

Using kitchen space donated by a food bank and a church and supplies donated by farmer’s markets and food co-ops, Pinel and his volunteers have prepared and given away an estimated 110,000 burritos, often filling tortillas with creative ingredients, including kale and butternut squash.

“We work with what’s available, but it’s always fresh and always prepared with a lot of enthusiasm and pride,” he says. “It’s the best thing in the world when you find somebody who’s feeling down and hand them a burrito. That human connection is sometimes more important than the food. It shows that somebody cares.”