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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Family Tradition to Share With Others Spans Generations

November 24, 2000|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The two immigrant families wanted to say thanks for all the opportunities they had been given, something above and beyond the traditional Thanksgiving meal they shared with each other.

So four years ago, the Bankis and Karimis, both from Iran, started sharing their meal with others.

And Thursday, at St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church in Simi Valley, they not only continued the tradition but prepared to turn it over to younger generations so that it would continue for years to come.

"This is our chance to say, 'America, thank you,' " said patriarch Jalal Banki, a Westlake Village resident overseeing a two-family production line dishing out turkey, sweet potatoes and stuffing to the homeless, senior citizens and others who have trouble making ends meet.

"Our families decided to find the homeless on Thanksgiving and express our appreciation from the bottom of our hearts," he said.

Added Thousand Oaks resident Jim Karimi, head cook and elder statesman of his family: "This country has given us so much; this is a small thing to do in return."

So it went on Thanksgiving Day across Ventura County as dozens of volunteers manned food lines, served up pumpkin pie and sparkling cider, and spent a little time lifting up the down-and-out before turning their attention to their own turkey dinners.

For Camarillo resident Mary Ann Novak, the holiday began the same way it has for seven years.

Loaded with turkey dinners, clothing and hygiene care packages, she and a group of friends drove to some of the meaner streets of Los Angeles to distribute the items to the homeless.

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For Novak, director of medical staff services at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, the tradition began when one of her friends befriended a homeless man collecting cans to raise enough money to get off the streets.

They decided back then to cook a Thanksgiving meal big enough to share with the man and 30 of his homeless friends. The next year, they started collecting warm clothing--and the year after that blankets, sweatshirts and jackets--to accompany the Thanksgiving food.

Novak and her buddies handed out about 60 dinners and care packages this year, and there is no end in sight to the holiday tradition.

"I truly believe in giving back," she said. "I don't think until you do something like this you realize how fortunate you are. It makes me feel good to recognize how lucky I am to be able to do this."

The same spirit of charity and generosity was alive and well at the Ventura Theatre, where volunteers were busy launching a new tradition.

Dozens of homeless and needy people flocked to the auditorium Thursday for a turkey dinner sponsored by the theater and a Ventura church group called the Bridge. There, they were seated at tables sporting colorful balloons and served hot meals overflowing with bird meat, stuffing and mashed potatoes.

"We serve them, bring them drinks, get them anything they need," Pastor Greg Russinger said. "It's all about taking care of people."

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The level of service was not lost on the hungry, who at least for a day were made to feel as though they were dining in a five-star establishment.

"This is fabulous," said Erica Gilmore, 29, who along with her 9-year-old daughter, Ashley, is living in the Salvation Army's transitional living shelter in downtown Ventura.

"They are so into serving us and catering to us; being a former waitress, you appreciate that," she said. "It helps take your mind off your problems. You don't feel homeless, you don't feel poor; you feel like a whole person again."

That is exactly what 57-year-old James Ponting was thinking. At the Episcopal church in Simi Valley, the homeless man was among the first to eat his meal.

"It was excellent food and excellent service, just like a fine restaurant," said Ponting, smiling through his long salt-and-pepper beard.

Like others on the streets in Simi Valley, Ponting spends his nights at a rotating church shelter program.

It's the same place 21-year-old Lana Sinsel can be found, waiting her chance to enter a drug rehabilitation program next month and win back custody of her 11-month-old son.

Sinsel said the patchwork of homeless services in Simi Valley--the rotating shelter, turkey dinners--is helping a lot of people like her get back on their feet.

"I think it's great," she said fresh off her Thanksgiving meal. "Without it, the homeless in Simi wouldn't survive."

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That is kind of what the Bankis and the Karimis had in mind when they launched their Thanksgiving tradition four years ago.

Sure they wanted to express their gratitude for all this country has to offer. But they also wanted to fill a need in their community and do something people would remember.

On hand Thursday were two of the families' grown sons, Nader Banki and Raumin Karimi, both of whom have pledged to continue the banquet.

"After this, we go home, have our own meal and share our thoughts about this day," Raumin Karimi said. "It's a joy that lasts all year long."

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