What began seven years ago as a Christmas party for a dozen needy families has evolved into a holiday extravaganza that feeds and entertains thousands of San Fernando Valley residents each year.
About 5,000 people, many of them dressed in their Sunday best, poured into the cafeteria at San Fernando Junior High School to feast on a turkey meal with all the trimmings. Sunday's event was staged by a group of West Valley businessmen called We Share Inc., who say they want to help people less fortunate than themselves.
"It's for those who might not have a holiday celebration, to bring them a little bit of joy," said Dick Yeakel, a Granada Hills realtor and one of three founding members of We Share. "This is traditionally a depressing time for people who don't have a family or a roof over their heads."
With the help of 125 volunteers and proceeds from an October golf tournament, the group served more than 100 turkeys between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Rows of tables were decorated with white place mats and colorful balloons. Christmas music played softly in the background as volunteers squeezed through the crowd with trays of food and pots of freshly brewed coffee.
The meal was followed by a visit from Santa Claus and a magic show that drew squeals of delight from children who gathered tightly around the stage.
Fidencio Dominguez, who depends on a monthly disability check to support his wife and two children, said, "I can't afford to take my family to a restaurant. To me, this is like a big present."
Dominguez's wife, Sylvia, said she learned about the complimentary meal last week when she went to her church in Pacoima for free cheese.
We Share distributed about 6,500 tickets for Sunday's holiday meal to churches and social service agencies throughout the Valley. They, in turn, gave them to needy families.
But volunteers at the cafeteria door Sunday were not discriminating.
"We don't turn anybody away," said Bill Veis, a member of We Share's board of directors.
Each year, the Christmas meal has drawn increasing numbers of people. Yeakel said he hopes to offer more than one event a year in 1988.
His efforts do not go unnoticed.
Raphael Torres, 16, of San Fernando watched the magic show Sunday with his mother, three brothers and two sisters.
"This is sort of special to us," he said, "coming out together, eating and having fun--for a while."