Giacomo Gianniotti – My Friend’s Place
By: Jamie Steinberg
Q) How did you originally become involved with My Friend’s Place?
A) I originally was doing some work with homeless back in Toronto, where I’m from. When I moved to LA, once I got myself grounded and settled I wanted to pick back up and continue it over here. So, I asked Jerrika Hinton (who plays Stephanie Edwards) if she knew any places that did that kind of work and she told me she had a friend who was the Executive Director at My Friend’s Place, who was named Heather Carmichael. So, she got me in touch with her. I did a tour of My Friend’s Place and was immediately hooked. I started volunteering there two or three times a week. My role then grew on “Grey’s Anatomy,” which made my schedule so I wasn’t able to commit to volunteering anymore, but I knew wanted to continue to be a part of what they were doing. So, I called a meeting with them and asked to switch my role. I said that I wasn’t able to volunteer anymore, but maybe I could be more of an ambassador who speaks up for you in the public eye and champions your organization. They said, “That’s great! We love that!” From then on, I started going to meetings with them at My Friend’s Place talking about how to better improve it and talking at events and organize events that could drive funds and raise awareness for My Friend’s Place. Shortly after that, I created this event, which is annually, that is a Tough Mudder. We get a lot of people involved to take part in a really aggressive fundraising campaign over a period of a couple months and then we do this Tough Mudder where we trudge through mud as we promised. The year before we had Jason George, Camilla Luddington, Joe Adler and Martin Henderson run in the event. We raised $15,000 that year and we almost doubled that this year raising $27,000. So, it’s a huge success. My Friend’s Place is super happy to have me involved and I am super happy to be involved with them. I think it’s something we’re going to be doing for a very long time.
Q) For those who do not know, what is a Tough Mudder?
A) I describe it to people as sort of a military style obstacle course. If you’ve ever seen movies about the military where cadets are being trained and jumping over fences and crawling under barbed wire. That’s sort of what it is like.
Q) What was it about Tough Mudder that made it a good fit for fundraising?
A) I had a coworker who works in the costume department of “Grey’s Anatomy” that was just going to do it herself. It was just a small scale thing at that point so she was asking if some friends want to run with her. I was curious so I went online and informed myself. I researched about it and then it kind of hit me. I had just come out of a meeting with My Friend’s Place and the director and her colleagues about finding ways to drive funds and awareness to My Friend’s Place. I found out my coworker was doing this Tough Mudder and it just sort of dawned on me that, “Why don’t we make this a charity event?” I noticed on the website when I went to check it out that a lot of people were doing these Tough Mudders to raise money for respective charities like when people do marathons. So, it was kind of arbitrary at first, but when I completed my first Tough Mudder last year there was something that I discovered that I didn’t know that I found Tough Mudder inherently had that was so synonymous and so like everything we do with My Friend’s Place that made it such an amazing partner. When I’m doing this Tough Mudder obstacle course, not only is it is encouraged, but it is forced upon you that it is not a race and not a competition. It is about working together. It’s about everyone doing their best. It’s about everyone working together to overcome our obstacles. That is a metaphor for life and what we do at My Friend’s Place. Every day, heather and her staff are helping these youths overcome their obstacles and it takes a village. And every year that we’re running in this Tough Mudder it is a village of us. It was about forty of us last year and about thirty of us this year. You meet people from all different walks of life, religions, race, etc. and none of that matters. It all just goes away and we’re helping one another. There is so much mud and dirt flying that you can’t even tell who anybody is so all you’re doing is helping everyone get over these obstacles together. Everybody becomes a teammate. Everybody becomes a friend. Everyone’s relationship becomes stronger by the end of it. So, I really love the symbolic metaphor ties between what Tough Mudder does and what we do at My Friend’s Place. So, they have become a great sponsor for that as well.
Q) You got to hand the organization a check and then serve the residents breakfast. How did that make you feel?
A) I have some very close friends who is a chef and caterer. When I told him about some of the stuff I had been doing he mentioned he’d love to get involve and cater a breakfast. So, that breakfast was all on him. He generously donated it. He brought eggs, potatoes, sausage, all kind of beautiful fresh fruit, orange juice and croissants that were freshly baked. So, we had a really amazing breakfast. If you’ve never been to My Friend’s Place that’s not a normal thing at all. Breakfast is like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a PopTart or a granola bar. It’s very basic packaged foods. We don’t have the budget to be serving hot food every day. So, whenever something like that or a sponsor or company comes in to do a hot meal during the day it’s a huge treat for the youth, especially in the morning. Breakfast is a really important part of the day in getting them nourished with a great meal that makes them feel good and strong and help them start to cope with the hard day ahead.
Q) How can people get involved in raising awareness for My Friend’s Place?
A) The reason I got involved with My Friend’s Place was I’ve always sort of had the idea that…And I’ve lived in all different places. I’ve lived in Toronto, Rome and Los Angeles now. In every community I’ve lived in I always give something to give back and help get involved. The reason I picked My Friend’s Place is because if you live in LA or even Hollywood especially the homeless problem is starring you in the face. Every block there is a homeless person and most of them are kids. It’s such a huge, huge unignorably problem. Other communities face different problems. So, when people ask me, “How can I do what you’re doing,” I tell them, “Maybe homelessness isn’t a problem in your community. Maybe you take good care of your homeless. You find them work, counseling, housing, etc.” I just kind of say to reflect to your community and see what is ailing your community and see if someone is doing anything to help that. If they are, then hop on board and help them. If not, you should be that person to bridge that gap and get that conversation started. If you are living in LA and a place close by, then MyFriendsPlace.org is our website. You can donate there online and set up for monthly donations. You can do even very, very small amounts. They add up and do a lot. On the website, we have all different kinds of events and things and workshops and ways the community can come and be involved. We have a high arts programming and it is about encouraging the arts with all of our youth. So, we are creating so much art that we can’t get rid of it. So, throughout the year we are doing a lot of pop ups and events at galleries around the city where we display the art. The lion’s share of the sales go back to the homeless youth who made the art.
Q) What has been the reaction from residents about your volunteering and even when you served breakfast?
A) They are obviously grateful. Some of them might know me. Some of them might not. Their problems are so much larger and realer than some of our problems. So, I think they are so grateful and happy. They are just seeing hot food and someone who is serving them with a smile and no judgement. I think it is a great positive message.
Q) That sort of ties into your character on “Grey’s Anatomy.” DeLuca developed feelings for Jo, who was once homeless at one time and could have used help like this. Did that cross your mind at all?
A) I mean, that was sort of before I came on. I think it is just a natural correlation. One of the things I will say about “Grey’s Anatomy” is that I absolutely love (and I’ve told this to Shonda [Rhimes] and our Executive Producers several times) is most episodes we try to tackle a real issue going on in America and our world. Last season and this season we explored gun regulation, gun valiance, bullying, sexism, racism and immigration. We had an episode this season that was special to me about mental illness. We had a young woman with schizophrenia. So, we’re getting to see these real problems that people face on screen and we’re getting to develop empathy for these people and not see them as strangers and terrorists or people who are evil, but actually starting to understand them and realize they come from beautiful, loving families like ours. Often times these individuals find themselves in these situations is a much, much larger than them. It in no way is by their choice.
Q) Do you think DeLuca has real feelings for Jo or is it solely sympathy for their shared traumatic experience?
A) I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but I think when certain people who know each other, but not very much experience something traumatic…Like the loss of a friend or parent or family member or something like what happened with Karev (Justin Chambers) where he beat me within an inch of my life and then there was a trial and a counseling…I think when two people go through something like that together there is a closeness and a relationship formed. There is an intimacy formed that is kind of unlike any other friendship. So, sometimes I feel like in those situations we can really confuse our emotions and I think that’s what happened. With Andrew DeLuca, I just think he spent all this time with this girl through the whole process. He had no one else to speak to or talk to or confide in. She was a really amazing sort of shoulder to lean on and cry on. So, she gained a lot of respect from DeLuca and towards the end of it he developed feelings. But who knows if they are honest or could be gone overnight. Who knows? I definitely think that Jo is not ready for something so quick. I think that’s why it’s not so much a “I don’t even feel that way about you” to an “I’m not ready to feel that way about anybody.”
Q) Is there anyone on the series that you haven’t worked with much or at all that you’d like to have scenes with?
A) Yeah, the guys. don’t have a lot of the guys hanging out – maybe having a drink at the bar – some lightness. I’d like to experience some lightness in the next season. We’ve had so much darkness, death and loss this season. Some of the characters are single now so it’d be funny to sort of see them on the prowl and dealing with dating at different ages as well. A lot of the males and females are at different ages on the show so I think it would be funny to show the spectrum of how things have changed.
Q) What have you taken away personally from working with My Friend’s Place?
A) Just an extreme and profound gratitude. I came from a middle class family. We didn’t have a lot, but I never didn’t have anything that I needed. I feel very lucky to be given the childhood, youth and upbringing that I had. I know that it was a part of my success. So, when I see people who didn’t get that same shot or chance it really just breaks my heart. I guess it just makes everything even more incredible and valuable to me. All the success I have had…I feel like the more success achieve the more helpful I become because it so much more than I could have dreamed of and so much more than so many people have. So, that’s always a constant reminder.
Q) Is there anything else you want to be sure we share about “My Friend’s Place?”
A) For the Los Angelinos, if they see a homeless youth on the street I would go up to them and ask if they know about My Friend’s Place and to go to it if they don’t know about it. We’re getting a lot of homeless youth coming in from across the country every day and it takes them a while to figure out My Friend’s Place and what it can offer for them. If they can donate a little something to My Friend’s Place at MyFriendsPlace.org that’s amazing and it’s always going to help. I think creating awareness is almost more important and getting the message out there that there are some really great people doing some great things so these people don’t have to feel alone.