Church leaders say a growing number of homeless people in the San Fernando Valley--plus a growing awareness of that population's needs--is prompting many residents to cook meals for the needy this Thanksgiving.
Valley residents have long collected cans of food or donated dollars for the hungry and homeless, the church leaders say, but, this year, many of them will also be roasting turkeys or mashing potatoes for meals that could serve as many as 2,000 people.
"The serving of meals in the Valley is a new phenomenon," said Priscilla Thompson, vice president in charge of social services for the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council.
In the past, free holiday meals have been more common in downtown Los Angeles than in the Valley, Thompson said. But this year, she said, more Valley churches and groups are organizing meals because of increased awareness of the Valley's homeless population and its needs.
Jane McGlory said the Pacoima Community Youth Culture Center decided to start serving meals this year because many of the homeless were unable to transform the packages of food distributed in past years into holiday meals.
'No Place to Cook'
"Giving them a box of groceries would not really do them any good because they have no place to cook it," McGlory said.
The center has teamed up with the Pacoima Seventh-day Adventist Church and plans to serve Thanksgiving dinner to 400 people today.
Other Valley groups holding Thanksgiving meals for the first time this week include Bouquet Baptist Church in Saugus, Sepulveda Christian Center Church, East Valley Congregational Church in North Hollywood and a group of nine United Methodist churches. The Salvation Army in Burbank served meals Wednesday.
Bouquet Baptist Church has held Thanksgiving feasts for its 300 members the past several years. Church members decided this year that it "isn't right" for them to feast while others go hungry, said the Rev. Chuck Babcock, church pastor.
"We have homeless here, too--and hungry," Babcock said. The church held its holiday dinner Sunday.
Tony Loya, associate pastor of Sepulveda Christian Center Church, said members of his congregation are preparing for 500 holiday diners this week. About 50 church members will cook, serve and wash dishes. About 35 of them will cook turkeys at home, and others will pick up homeless people in city parks and drive them to the meal.
Loya said the church organized the meal because its members felt there were few opportunities for free holiday meals in the Valley. He said he was surprised and pleased to learn that other churches are doing the same.
"We thought we were being unique," Loya said.
A Thanksgiving meal planned by nine United Methodist churches is aimed not only at the needy, but at people who may be away from friends and family during the holiday. The Rev. G. Nelson Stringer, who called the meal a "community Thanksgiving," said he expects a few hundred diners.
Several organizations also have been collecting canned goods or preparing food packages that will be delivered to families throughout the Valley this week. Friday, eight food pantries divided about 20,000 cans gathered by the San Fernando Valley Board of Realtors during a three-week collection campaign geared to Thanksgiving.
The pantries, which accept donations and distribute food year-round, may be contacted through the Interfaith Coalition at (818) 718-6460.
The pantries are North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry, Meet Each Need With Dignity (MEND) in Pacoima, St. Cyril's Catholic Church in Encino, West Valley Prince of Peace Coalition, FISH of Chatsworth, Lutheran Social Services in Van Nuys, Valley Shelter in North Hollywood and St. Jane Frances Catholic Church in North Hollywood.
Here are some of the organizations that will hold dinners offering traditional Thanksgiving fare this week. Representatives of all groups said they still are accepting donations of food and money and would welcome volunteers:
East Valley Congregational Church: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thanksgiving Day; 10919 Oxnard St., North Hollywood; free; (818) 505-8628. The dinner is sponsored by the Congregational Church and the United American Church.
Pacoima Seventh-day Adventist Church: 11 a.m. Thanksgiving Day; 11350 Glenoaks Blvd. Pacoima; free; (818) 896-8878. The dinner is sponsored by Inner City, the church's community affairs branch, and the Pacoima Community Youth Culture Center.
United Methodist churches: Noon to 1:30 p.m. Thanksgiving Day; Mason Park Recreation Center, 10500 Mason Ave., Chatsworth; $4 donation requested; (818) 882-8005. The dinner is open to the needy as well as anyone wanting companionship on Thanksgiving.
Salvation Army, Van Nuys: 5 p.m. Sunday; 14917 Victory Blvd., Van Nuys; free; (818) 781-5739. The army will serve turkey at its regular Sunday-night dinner time.
Sepulveda Christian Center Church: Sittings at 1:45, 2:30 and 3:15 p.m. Thanksgiving Day; 9145 Burnet Ave., Sepulveda; free; (818) 891-6747.