MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Thanksgiving is an annual holiday when friends and families collectively give thanks and fellowship while eating a traditional feast replete with turkey, yams, dressing, cranberry sauce and sweet potato pie.
While the upcoming festivity Nov. 28 is a joyous occasion for most, not everyone has that privilege during the holiday season. Unfortunately, many will have little or nothing to eat, while others will spend the holiday alone.
One organization doing its part to help everyone celebrate the holiday in a family-like atmosphere is Westside Thanksgiving Dinner.
Since 1982, Westside Thanksgiving Dinner and its army of donors and volunteers have been serving a traditional holiday feast with all the trimmings to thousands of homeless, less fortunate, students, families and anyone else who wants to enjoy the holiday.
This year’s celebration will take place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thanksgiving Day at the West L.A. Civic Center, 1645 Corinth Ave.
Tim McGrath and his partner Lori McCreary are the co-chairs who founded the nonprofit, although McGrath said they don’t actually go by titles because the organization, made up of volunteers, doesn’t want one person taking the credit.
McGrath, 63, said they came up with the idea for Westside Thanksgiving Dinner after members of Vineyard Christian Fellowship watched a film about a similar program in Texas.
“We watched the film and thought we could do the same thing,” said McGrath, who grew up in Big Bear but now lives in Santa Monica. “Our church met in an area where there was a number of homeless living. Every week we would go to church and see more and more less fortunate people. We began to do sack lunches for them. We thought there was more we could do collectively.”
In its infancy, Westside Thanksgiving Dinner started off with a chef who volunteered to cook the food. The dinner was served in the basement of St. Augustine Episcopal Church in Santa Monica, which had a capacity of 100.
“It all happened through word of mouth and flyers,” said McGrath, a married father of two. “We had no idea if anyone would come. The homeless don’t RSVP. We walked out of the church and the line was around the block. We knew we had something.”
The next year, McGrath asked two friends who owned a hair salon to give free haircuts. They agreed and ended up giving between 300 and 400 haircuts.
After about four years, Westside Thanksgiving Dinner, which relies solely on donations from the local community, outgrew St. Augustine’s and moved to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, which McGrath said, had earthquake modification problems, forcing them to move to the Veterans Administration and eventually to the West Los Angeles Civic Center. While the venue grew in square footage, so too did the volunteers and the need, which grew exponentially.
The volunteers meet every Sunday about a month before the event to begin organizing the massive dinner.
Now, thousands come out to the Westside Thanksgiving Dinner, which has expanded to include blankets, haircuts, hygiene kits, vaccinations, optical exams, clothes, dental, medical, a resource fair and a children’s carnival. The celebration is open to everyone and no reservation is needed.
The amount of food used for the annual dinner includes 300 turkeys, 600 pumpkin pies, 1,000 boxes of Stovetop stuffing, 250 boxes of instant mashed potatoes, 200 cans of green beans, 240 cans of cranberry sauce, 200 cans of turkey gravy, 100 pounds of ground coffee, 350 gallons of bottled water and 500 juice boxes for kids.
“The people who come to the dinner are our guests,” McGrath said. “Before dinner, we serve them coffee and Danish. We also help them address, sign and mail Christmas cards.”
McGrath said when attendees arrive there is a hat check area where they are given a number and allowed to store their belongings so they don’t have to be concerned about there whereabouts during the event.
“We also have a maître d who greets everyone and hugs them,” McGrath said. “We then feed them an amazing dinner.”
There is even a to go bag for attendees who want to take food with them when they leave.
Social service agencies attend the dinner allowing participants to find the help they need.
Westside Thanksgiving Dinner also has a partnership with the Lions Club, which gives away eyeglasses. There is also a children’s area where there are cartoon characters and a jolly jump.
“We want the kids to have an amazing day as well,” McGrath said. “What we do is let our minds wander and think to ourselves, ‘If I lived on the street what would help me.’”
McGrath said he appreciates the help Westside Thanksgiving Dinner receives from the city of Los Angeles, the West LA Civic Auditorium, the City Council, elected officials, UCLA doctors, and social agencies.
“They help us to be successful,” said McGrath, who added the Westside Thanksgiving Dinner is the only event held by the group each year because of what it represents.
“We are Christians,” he said. “We think it’s an obligation. We are thankful for what God has provided us with and we want to share it with others. We say a prayer thanking God before we have the dinner. There are no overt religious overtones, though.
“If we create an atmosphere where it’s safe and people can have a good time, we’ve done our part. The purpose of our dinner is we give a little bit and we get twice as much back.”
In the past, McGrath, McCreary and the organizing committee have shied away from press coverage out of respect for the attendees.
“If you were homeless would you want a camera in your face,” McGrath said. “’Hi mom, I’m homeless.’ That’s not what we want.”
What McGrath does want is to provide something meaningful to those in need.
“This event reminds me every single year of what a joy it is to have a group of blessed friends in my life,” McGrath said. “That’s important to me. For one day we are making a difference.”
Volunteers and donations are still needed. Monetary donations are needed to defray production costs including renting tables and chairs, lights, generators, shuttle vans, security and more.
Checks can be sent to Westside Vineyard. Please put “Thanksgiving” in the memo line. Mail to: Westside Thanksgiving Dinner, 3838 S. Centinela Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90066 or bring it to the event.
For information, visit westsidethanksgiving.org/ or call (310) 394-3153.
“Making A Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making A Difference” profile, send an email to email@example.com.
By Darlene Donloe