Meals Served With a Side of Care

Ann Richardson’s team serves an early turkey dinner last Saturday at Laguna’s homeless shelter, where volunteers have provided nightly meals for three years.

Every single night for the past three years, without fail, volunteers from the community have arrived at Laguna Beach’s homeless shelter, formally known as the Alternate Sleeping Location, bearing food, and served a hot meal to 50 to 80 homeless people. Every night.

More than a meal, such dedication serves as “a daily reminder to our very vulnerable residents that our community cares about them,” said Dawn Price, executive director of the Friendship Shelter, which oversees the ASL under a city contract.

A similar meal plan run by faith communities for a shelter where Price lived in Des Moines, Iowa, provided a successful model. Her 4,000-member church supplied food once a week. Price confessed she’s “surprised and heartened” that despite Laguna’s smaller community with smaller churches, the program still thrives three years later.

Local resident Daga Krackowizer, a Unitarian Universalist congregant who presides over the Laguna Beach Interfaith Council, attributes at least some of that longevity to faith groups who belong to the council and who remain steadfast in their mission of helping the poor, sick and disenfranchised. They provided sustenance to Laguna’s homeless well before the shelter existed, and now make up many of the meal providers on the ASL’s volunteer roster.

Among those volunteers, one woman’s contribution stands out.

Ann Richardson, an Interfaith Council representative for the Church of Latterday Saints, volunteered to oversee the meal plan from the outset. She insists the program’s efficiency lies in the conscientiousness and dedication of the volunteer “teams” who each have a chairman. “They are very dependable,” she said. “They put it on their calendars and they are as regular as clockwork.”

Price gives Richardson, who she describes as “faith in action,” more credit. “She worries equally about the people who need to be fed and the people who do the feeding,” she said. “I can’t imagine that we would have this kind of loyalty from our volunteers without her careful and caring hand on this program.”

Last Saturday, Richardson’s own team provided dinner. From two cars, volunteers bearing food spilled out at 6:30 p.m. Several able-bodied meal beneficiaries offered help transporting the large trays and coolers of food inside. The menu: a complete turkey dinner with all the fixings.

Volunteers set out the food in one corner of the large room, its floor strewn with sleeping mats and bisected by a long table. Hungry dinner guests lined up in an orderly fashion and were handed paper plates by a volunteer. Friendly banter filled the air along with savory aromas. Service began promptly at 6:45. Diners exchanged pleasantries with their servers, chose dark meat or white, asked for “a little more mashed potatoes” or just thanked them for the repast. It might have been a church potluck supper. By 7:30, volunteers were packing up their wares.

Many of the volunteers count their effort as much a gift as the dinner is to the homeless. “It is one of the loves of my life to be privileged to do this,” said Pam Wicks, a member of the Neighborhood Congregational Church, who has led a “second Monday” team for the past three years.

Her team also serves up a little chanting on the side, since they formed out of a Kirtan chanting circle that meets at the church. “We always chant with the people there,” she said, even if it’s just three oms, adding, “It is so powerful to see how the energy in the room is transformed.”

And when the Tibetan monks visited recently to create their sand mandala in the sanctuary of the NCC, Wicks said they jumped at the chance to cook the meal and to serve it alongside the other volunteers. Wicks said one of the monks told them “I know what it’s like to be homeless; we are homeless, too.”

Though the shelter only sleeps 45, volunteers feed anyone who is hungry, said Richardson, which might be as few as 50 or as many as 80, depending on the time of year.

Price believes that beyond providing food to the homeless, the meal preparers can serve as “eyes and ears” for the greater community. They see the plight of the local homeless population, noticing the physical and mental health problems challenging so many of them, and share first-hand testimonials within their own circle about the issues Laguna continues to confront. “I think the fact that they continue to volunteer says something profound about what they are witnessing, about the authenticity of the needs and the true desperation of many of our clients,” said Price.

Mary LaRusso, who is a team leader with the NCC, called the program “nothing short of spectacular.” Krackowizer agreed that “the community spirit in this is quite amazing.” Even if they have their moments, they pull through, as when a week ago her usual contingent of four to six team members suddenly dropped to two. But they still put together a meal for 75 people.

Each team organizes their own meal, divvying up responsibilities and costs in an arrangement of their own choosing. Krackowizer takes advantage of a deal at Costco where she can get 10 chickens at $4.99 each, enough for 65 people. Another woman from her church always contributes homemade mashed potatoes. Each team serves a balanced meal on their assigned night.

In all, seven Laguna Beach churches participate each month, most on multiple nights, including the Neighborhood Congregational Church, St. Catherine of Siena, Laguna Presbyterian, the Laguna Beach Methodist Church, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, St. Mary’s Episcopal, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints. Four churches outside of Laguna participate, as do the OC Christians, the Soroptimist Club, Village Laguna, Z Pizza and the Ratkovich family. And Richardson said she “takes strays” when people want to help, but don’t have their own team.

Volunteers also supply bag lunches for the people staying at the shelter, delivered the night before so that they can take them with them when they leave in the morning. Notably, Mission Hospital provides lunches three days each week, with other volunteers, including Mary LaRusso, the Larson family and Spin OC filling in the gaps. The food pantry at the Resource Center next door also provides breakfast items and supplements lunches.

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