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Taking The Pie: A Personal Perspective On Doing Good On Thanksgiving

cmrivera |
November 27, 2015 | 12:41 a.m. PST

Laiza Ochy in Pasadena's Central Park (Chole Marie Rivera/Annenberg Media).
Laiza Ochy in Pasadena's Central Park (Chole Marie Rivera/Annenberg Media).

Thanksgiving is a time of year when friends and families traditionally gather together to eat turkey, give thanks and suppress years-old sibling rivalries. For some, the year’s accumulated gratitude and good intentions overflow, manifesting in a volunteer shift at a public Thanksgiving Dinner. 

For others, hunger or loneliness means seeking a free meal. Many of these free meals are aimed at homeless or low-income persons, though it’s difficult to find a specific and comprehensive count. I culled lists of events and sampled events in Pasadena, West Los Angeles and Hollywood from the perspective of the attendees.

Pasadena 

The park is an expanse of green lawn dotted with trees, play equipment and people appearing to be homeless. The Los Angeles Homeless Authority estimates that were 44,359 people without homes in Los Angeles County in 2015. Pasadena’s Central Park has a reputation of being a place for homeless people with to loiter, making it a natural place to hold an outdoor meal. 

The Union Station Homeless Services Thanksgiving Dinner-in-the-Park is an annual event, running from 11 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Laiza Ochy, 66, sits at a picnic table surrounded by her luggage. Her face is framed by her fleece hood; her hands are buried in a patterned blanket. She didn’t have the dinner served in the park because she isn’t hungry — she just came from a church in downtown. She has a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and fruit for later. She gets full easily.

Donald Oliver talks about being homeless (Chole Marie Rivera/Annenberg Media)
Donald Oliver talks about being homeless (Chole Marie Rivera/Annenberg Media)

Food isn’t the problem for Ochy; she says she's got the network of church services wired. The real issue is where to shower and sleep. She receives a pension from her previous work as a banker, but it’s not enough to cover a decent place to live.

READ MORE: The History Of The Thanksgiving Feast

“You have to lower your standards,” she said. For her, Los Angeles is frightening and she fears shelters, so she takes the train to Pasadena before it gets dark. 

“Without the train, I’d be in a convalescent home or sanitorium,” she said. 

Across the park, sleeping bags are splayed out with three men basking in the afternoon sun. Donald Oliver, 57, is flanked by styrofoam containers and beverages. His two friends, who don’t want to be identified, are similarly festooned with plastic bags of food and water bottles. They’re stuffed from the food and banter about the bounty they’ve been provided. The “do-gooders” as the men call them, have been out in full-force. 

Oliver says he gave up his worldly goods to follow God three years ago, saying “God tells me things.” Now he works at a temp agency doing construction or janitorial work, but sometimes it costs more to get to the job than he gets paid. Oliver says he wanted to build a church, but now he dreams of building something for the homeless, “when it’s cold at night, you understand differently.” 

As I sat with the group, a pair approached with bags full of McDonald’s looking to dispense some philanthropy. The men, who had repeatedly offered me food, at this point insisted, “Feed her!” The do-gooders waited patiently as I repeatedly declined. Finally, I confessed I was a vegetarian. 

Mark Featherstone, at the Westside Thanksgiving Community Dinner (Chole Marie Rivera/Annenberg Media).
Mark Featherstone, at the Westside Thanksgiving Community Dinner (Chole Marie Rivera/Annenberg Media).

“You can eat a pie!” 

Donald's friend handed me a warm McDonald’s pie from his recent dinner acquisition. The men watched as I ate the apple pie, which to me, tasted kind of like a churro. Satisfied, they began to pack up for the day; you can’t camp in the park overnight. 

West Los Angeles 

Driving onto the Veteran’s Administration Campus, I found brothers Mark and Cooper Featherstone, and their mom, taking down parking signs. Mark, 8, described his mother’s reason for volunteering, “She felt bad ... she said we have more than other people.” 

His mom, Meredith Featherstone, described how she contacted five volunteer groups but was surprised to find three turned her away. She and her sons helped “take everything down” with an estimated 500-600 other volunteers. 

Veteran Willie Roy and volunteer Libby Henson (Chole Marie Rivera/Annenberg Media).
Veteran Willie Roy and volunteer Libby Henson (Chole Marie Rivera/Annenberg Media).

At the site of the celebration, in a parking lot surrounded by buildings, volunteers were sweeping up. Willy Roy, 66, is a Vietnam veteran living on the campus. He didn’t partake in the community dinner, but came to check things out.

“Most veterans, they have problems--physical, mental," he said. "They’re homeless, have substance addiction. These things help morale, make you want to live.” 

Roy is grateful to live at the Exodus building, on the VA grounds. 

“God willing, I’ll be here another year, maybe more.” We were just discussing how the space facilitated community when some organizers insisted I leave. 

No press allowed.

Hollywood

The line for 7 p.m. dinner the Laugh Factory dinner stretched around the corner and down the block. While there are some in line who appeared to have not bathed recently, most seem like they are in their thirties or forties. 

The mood of the crowd feels different and distinctly Hollywood — many are with friends, many have colorful dispositions. Debbie Merill, skating instructor to the stars and author, is entertaining her fellow line dwellers with colorful poses. She doesn’t have family but is accompanied by her friend James S.H., an actor and voiceover actor for romance novels.

Debbie Merrill and her friend James S.H. "This is not a Harold and Maude thing," James said. (Chole Marie Rivera/Annenberg Media)
Debbie Merrill and her friend James S.H. "This is not a Harold and Maude thing," James said. (Chole Marie Rivera/Annenberg Media)

“I have no family. I’m alone. I’m single. I was hit by a car last year, so I’m disabled...since I got injured, my life got turned upside down,” said Merill. “So now I want to laugh my way to health.”

Owner Jamie Masada has been offering meals to anyone who needs dinner and a laugh for 36 years. Distinguishing itself from other offerings around town, the Laugh Factory offers a distinctive serving time with a side of comedy. They feed an estimated 300 - 400 at each of their four settings, said Marketing Director Aiko Makino. Masada said he is addicted to giving. 

“We give them some food for their stomach and comedians give them some food for their soul. The greatest thing is, people come in here, they walk out and they’re happy,” he said.

Inside, the room radiates warmth. Comedians like Tehran and Paul Rodriguez serve food and perform for the crowd. The show is different each time. Rodriguez says this is where he has spent the last 28 years. 

“This is my family," he said. "This is where I spend it.” 

Jesus,"Kevin Lee Light," lives in the neighborhood (Chole Marie Rivera/Annenberg Media).
Jesus,"Kevin Lee Light," lives in the neighborhood (Chole Marie Rivera/Annenberg Media).

He joked that he was in charge of serving the dark meat.

In the corner, “Sister” Vanessa Gaines, has come from South Los Angeles by herself for food and entertainment. She insists I take her photo with a large turkey near the serving line. When I do, she pets my head.

As I left the club, in an only-in-Hollywood moment, I heard the line crying out, “Jesus! Jesus!” 

And there he was.

Contact Contributor Chole Marie Rivera here or follow her on Twitter here.



 

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