WILMINGTON — After a fire destroyed their mobile home three months ago, Gary Fickenworth and Patty Myers began living in an old boat that sits in a desolate expanse of vacant lots and auto-wrecking yards in the dusty side roads of Wilmington.
The couple have no electricity, no running water and no sewage system. As winter approaches, bringing brisk winds from the nearby harbor, they get heat only from discarded wood that they burn in a steel pail.
In their world of elemental struggles, the fight against hunger often has been the most difficult.
"A lot of times, we have hit garbage cans just to survive," said Fickenworth, 26, who is partially disabled. "Sometimes we have thought that we might not make it through the winter." He collects scrap metal to earn a few dollars and hopes to be called soon for work as a security guard. Myers, who is also disabled, is unemployed.
A Little Easier
But their plight has recently become a little easier. Now, three days a week, they can count on a hot meal. And today,they are looking forward to a real Thanksgiving feast.
Help has been coming to the couple--and more than 150 other needy people--through the 4-month-old One at a Time Ministries, a hunger relief program that is run by two members of Lomita's South Bay Vineyard Christian Fellowship, a 400-member, nondenominational church.
On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday of each week, Terri Odum of Redondo Beach and Brenda Fiscus of Torrance travel the bumpy dirt roads of south Wilmington in Odum's van, offering prepared meals and such staples as bread and milk to the needy from the back of the rust-colored vehicle. They serve six informal camps for the homeless, as well as several isolated, makeshift homes, like the boat occupied by Fickenworth and Myers.
The women's visits have become an important part of survival for many of Wilmington's most impoverished people, needy residents say.
'Wouldn't Make It'
"If it wasn't for these people helping us and pulling us through, we wouldn't make it," said Myers, 28. "Sometimes when I think about it, I just sit here and cry."
Said Nathan Sherry, 32, an unemployed truck driver who has lived for two months in a Wilmington camp for the homeless: "I think I'd be starving to death if they didn't come around."
For Thanksgiving, the women have extended their volunteer program, which is run solely on private donations. With the assistance of Wilmington's Calvary Presbyterian Church, Odum and Fiscus are planning a sit-down dinner that will include many typical Thanksgiving trimmings--turkey, dressing, corn and string beans, candied yams, mashed potatoes, salads, hot rolls and pumpkin pie. The dinner, to be held at Calvary Presbyterian, 1160 Marine Ave., from 12 to 3 p.m., is expected to draw 150 to 200 needy Wilmington people.
Odum and Fiscus, who approach the homeless in a cheery, interested manner, also distribute clothes to the needy and sometimes visit hospitals and jails.
"When you see transients walk down the street, they don't seem like real people, but when you talk to them and you hear their stories, it's a lot different," said Fiscus, 39, a mother of three grown children who works part time at a Bible store.
"A lot of them become precious," Fiscus continued. "Once you go down there, you never stop thinking about them. You're always thinking of ways you can help and things you can do."
Indeed, the women have devised numerous ways to provide assistance. They have approached several businesses, such as bakeries and supermarkets, for leftover food. They have often exchanged surplus food with local churches and social service organizations that had different products. They have given out gift certificates from fast-food restaurants to help those who need food on the days that it is not delivered.
Mostly, though, Odum and Fiscus simply take donations from whoever offers them. In one case, a dentist donated toothbrushes and toothpaste; on another occasion, a thrift store that was going out of business donated its remaining clothing stock. Fellow church members, relatives and friends are the most frequent donors, providing everything from money to clothing to prepared meals.
Spaghetti to Hot Dogs
Odum and Fiscus cook most of the meals they distribute, ranging from spaghetti to hotdogs to taco salad. Last Saturday's beef stew that fed 130 cost $44 to prepare, they said.
"Sometimes we wonder where the next day's meal is going to come from, but someone always shows up with a donation," said Odum, 43, a mother of three and wife of an associate pastor of the Lomita church. "We work with whatever is donated. . . . We haven't really solicited donations very much, but we do need them."
Added Fiscus, "Wilmington is the most obviously needy place in the South Bay that I've seen, but I haven't seen every area. I just know that in Wilmington there are a lot of people having a hard time."