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Personal Best

She Helps the Poor Survive on Skid Row

September 25, 1997|DIANE WEDNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Carol Harrington seems right at home in the Frontline Foundation's narrow, utilitarian kitchen, where the decor runs to wall-to-wall tuna cans and handmade stainless-steel tables.

Neither she nor the handful of volunteers stirring large pots of melted marshmallows, destined to be the glue in Rice Krispie Treats, seem to mind.

"We're all here for the same reason," said Harrington, 49. "It adds a dimension to our lives. It's a great gift we give ourselves."

The gift this soft-spoken Reseda resident speaks of is the preparation and distribution of food to the "smelly, pukey, dirty, beautiful people" of skid row, as Frontline founder Ray Castellani calls the addicts and the mentally ill who live under the bridges and along the railroad tracks downtown.

Every Friday for the past nine years, Harrington, known as the "tuna and egg queen," has prepared the countless sandwiches that she and Frontline's corps of volunteers deliver regularly to the downtrodden.

"You see survival at its core and it touches anyone who goes downtown," Harrington said. "This work gives me balance in my life. I can focus on something important."

Harrington got involved in the humanitarian effort after reading about Castellani's efforts in a local newsletter. She showed up one rainy morning to lend a hand at Frontline's original home at the Sherman Oaks United Methodist Church, with husband and son in tow.

After preparing her first batch of sandwiches, Harrington asked to accompany Castellani, a onetime skid row resident, downtown on his mission of mercy. Her commitment has never flagged.

"Carol is a totally compassionate human being. She has a tremendous capacity for understanding humanity," Castellani said. "She participates in the ideals of helping others. And she's made a lot of tuna fish," he added with a smile.

The Frontline Foundation, which operates out of a Van Nuys warehouse on a shoestring budget, has served more than 600,000 meals since Castellani distributed his first batch of 111 peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches on skid row 10 years ago.

The 64-year-old Castellani, a 1995 recipient of the Presidential Service Award, used to set up his portable soup kitchen on the corner of 5th and San Pedro streets, where large crowds lined up to partake of the free meals.

For the past few years, Castellani, Harrington and other volunteers have driven around in trucks, stopping in alleys and hidden crannies to hand out individual sack lunches to the down and out.

The spirit of giving that drives the Frontline Foundation has also inspired Harrington's 13-year-old son, John, who has accompanied her to the kitchen since he was 4. To do his share for the effort, he donates $48 a year toward the purchase of mayonnaise.

"I thought the greatest gift I could give my child was to help him learn tolerance and love of others," Harrington said.

The Akron, Ohio, native works part time for an Encino accountant and attends Valley College, where she is working toward an elementary teaching credential. She, her husband of 29 years and their son think of Frontline as their home away from home.

"All the volunteers are like family," Harrington said. "We care about each other and about the people we serve."

Personal Best is a weekly profile of an ordinary person who does extraordinary things. Please send suggestions on prospective candidates to Personal Best, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311. Or fax them to (818) 772-3338. Or e-mail them to valley@latimes.com

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