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Thanksgiving is skid row's version of the Oscars

Hollywood stars and celebrity chefs compete to prepare and serve Thanksgiving meals. 'It's like getting a concert ticket,' an official says of sign-up lists that closed weeks ago.

November 26, 2013|By Gale Holland
  • At the Union Rescue Mission, volunteer Jim Von Gremp, right, serves cranberries to Keasan Young, 5, as he is helped by volunteer Pinar Kara.
At the Union Rescue Mission, volunteer Jim Von Gremp, right, serves cranberries… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Want to volunteer to serve Thanksgiving dinner on skid row? Take a number — for next year.

Volunteer sign-ups at several downtown shelters closed in late September or October. During the final days before the holiday, coordinators were turning away up to 50 callers a day — some of whom insisted they would show up Thanksgiving Day, with or without an invitation.

"It's like getting a concert ticket," Midnight Mission spokeswoman Mai Lee said. "You have to sign up as soon as it's posted."

For some of the 1,000 or more volunteers who will help with the Thanksgiving meals, serving on skid row is a family tradition going back generations. Corporate sponsors take some of the slots for their employees; schools with a longtime volunteer commitment get others.

When shelters hit their holiday volunteer limit, they encourage those they turn away to consider helping at other times of the year.

New volunteers have been moved by the growing numbers of people without homes in Los Angeles County — more than 57,000 — in the wake of the Great Recession, organizers said. The Midnight Mission is on track to serve more meals in 2013 than in any year since the 1930s, organizers said.

Then again, Los Angeles loves a good spectacle. And Thanksgiving is skid row's Oscars or Super Bowl — a production that lasts almost a week, drawing a soap opera cast, celebrity chefs and the less famous as well.

Three downtown shelters — the Midnight, Los Angeles and Union Rescue missions — stagger meal times so that guests can eat for free on several days during the holiday week. Families and the working poor join skid row's homeless to drive the total of all the guest lists to more than 10,000.

Almost every volunteer wants to actually dish out the food. "It's sexier," said Georgia Berkovich, the Midnight Mission's community relations manager.

"I think it's the least creative way to help people," executive chef Rob Rice said.

On Monday, Olesya Nerubalskya, 26, a Russian studying English at the Language Systems Institute in Los Angeles, was deboning turkeys. Although she had never experienced an American Thanksgiving, she was familiar with homeless people in Russia.

"People who don't have a home, it's very hard for them," Nerubalskya said.

At the Union Rescue Mission, the Rev. Andy Bales was out on the sidewalk on San Pedro Street until 1:30 a.m. Saturday deep-frying turkeys. After taking a nap in his office, he was back at it by 6 a.m., he said.

More than 500 turkeys were ready when diners began filing in after lining up for blocks. They were greeted by producers and cast members for "The Bold and the Beautiful" soap opera.

Producer Casey Kasprzyk said the CBS show's involvement with the mission led to a story line in 2010. The character Stephanie Forrester, played by Susan Flannery, had lost her will to live after a stage-4 lung cancer diagnosis.

She regained it after chasing a thief from Angels Flight to skid row, where she collected residents' stories of hope and new beginnings, he said. Flannery, in character as Forrester, interviewed skid row residents on the show in a kind of reality/docu-soap, he said.

Naturally, the story took multiple episodes to unfurl. "It's a soap opera," Kasprzyk said.

Michael Voltaggio, owner-chef of Ink restaurant in West Hollywood, spent the week "curating" contributions from a cast of big names for the Los Angeles Mission's supper Wednesday night. .

Suzanne Goin (Lucques, A.O.C.) was down for sweet potatoes, Josef Centeno (Baco Mercat, Orsa & Winston) has the mashed potatoes and Ray Garcia (FIG) is doing the carrots. Neil Patrick Harris, who served last year, said he is returning for food prep, said Voltaggio, a "Top Chef" winner.

Some of the chefs will contribute recipes while others will cook alongside shelter residents.

"These are people who are going from not knowing where they're going to sleep to making meals for people who don't know where they're going to sleep," Voltaggio said. "And we're making gravy together."

Voltaggio said his friend Roy Choi, author and chef of Kogi fusion taco fame, got him into volunteering last year. Voltaggio walked into a planning meeting and discovered that he was in charge of dinner for 4,500.

"I walked out saying, 'Did that just happen?' " he said. "I cook for 450 people a night. This was 4,500.

"The whole meal runs on adrenaline," he said.

The Midnight Mission will close out Thanksgiving with brunch Thursday. Dick Van Dyke is set to perform a rap version of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

Volunteer Sharon Paredes, 20, had hoped to be there on the holiday, but settled for helping serve a 6 a.m. breakfast earlier in the week.

"It's better than nothing," said Paredes, a Fullerton College student who came with her Garden Grove church group.

"It would have been more of the thankful kind of feeling," said David Gomez, 20, who accompanied Paredes. "It was still very thankful; a lot of smiles."

The first of three shifts of volunteers will arrive at 8 a.m Thursday at the Midnight Mission; VIP volunteers are scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Some will serve plates. Others will tie each guest's flatware together with a ribbon.

"Why is that important? It just is," Berkovich said. "This is for the people who won't get a Costco cake for their birthday. It's our holiday."

gale.holland@latimes.com

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