Real Life Santas Finding the joy in giving

December 2007

By Sharon Boorstin

The holiday season is a time for family togetherness, for giving gifts and sharing good food around the table with loved ones. But for those who are ill or far away from home – or cannot afford life’s basics let alone Christmas presents or a Christmas dinner – the holidays can be the most depressing time of the year. That’s where Pasquale Vericella, Margo Kidushirn, Rosalind Grushkin and Terri Lattanzio – and volunteers like them – come in. Real life Santas bring joy to people in our community who might otherwise feel sad and forgotten during the holidays. And giving to others makes their own holiday experience that much greater.

Inspired Heart
Pasquale Vericella, whose restaurant has been dubbed one of the city’s most romantic spots for a wedding, makes helping the homeless a family effort. Every year on Thanksgiving he and his wife Pattie and their three children bring turkeys that were roasted in Il Cielo’s ovens to the Good Shepherd Center for homeless women and children in downtown Los Angeles. Then they roll up their sleeves and serve the residents Thanksgiving lunch with all the trimmings. This year Aida Thibiant is providing gifts for all the residents. A few days before Christmas they buy and wrap gifts for the residents, and play Santa. “Our reward is seeing the happiness and gratitude on their faces when they realize someone out there cares about them,” he says.

Pasquale explains that in a city where nearly 90,000 people are homeless it’s the homeless women who are worst off. They’re often mugged and raped, and they lose their identity-thus the importance of the Good Shepherd Center. He calls Sister Julia Mary, the center’s founder and director, the “Mother Teresa of Los Angeles.” He was so moved by her compassion and dedication when he met her nearly 20 years ago, in fact, that he named one of his daughters after her. “Sister Julia Mary has devoted her life to helping homeless women and though she just turned 90 she’s still a dynamo,” he says.

Pasquale serves on the board of directors of Good Shepherd Center, which offers residents medical help and counseling, not just food and a roof over their heads. Thanks to his and other supporters’ efforts, in January the center is opening a school to teach residents life and computer skills and train them for jobs. Also in their new building, there is a bakery where residents can bake a variety of delicious goods and sell them to the surrounding Belmont community. “It’s very life-affirming for a person to experience making something with your hands that’s nourishing,” he says.

A Big Family
Stroll over to Central Park on the corner of Fair Oaks and Del Mar in Pasadena on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day and you may be amazed to see thousands of people enjoying a feast at long tables spanning the lawn. Is it a gigantic family reunion? In a way it is-if you count a community coming together to celebrate the holidays as a “family.”

Union Station Foundation, the San Gabriel Valley’s largest private agency serving the poor and homeless, has been putting on free “Thanksgiving Dinner-in – the- Park” and “Christmas Dinner-in-the-Park” events for more than 30 years. Over 1500 volunteers help on Thanksgiving when they serve over 5000 meals, and around 700 volunteers serve 3500 meals on Christmas. That includes setting up the day before and cleaning up the day after. Volunteers who donate, cook or serve food, or work one of three shifts a day include teenagers, seniors, Boomers and entire families.

Margo Kidushim and her husband and children got involved six years ago, after Margo started volunteer cooking one day a week at the foundation’s homeless shelter. “I was so impressed by the dedication of everyone involved I couldn’t stay away,” says Margo, who’s now a member of the Union Station Foundation board. “We celebrate Hanukkah with my husband’s family, but on Christmas Day you’ll find us at ‘Christmas Dinner-in-the-Park.'”

One of the most popular spots at the afternoon event is “Santa’s Village,” a station where a Santa Claus greets children and volunteers hand out over 3000 donated new gifts, from stuffed animals and dolls to sporting equipment. Margo loves to see the expressions on the kids’ faces when they get their presents, but it’s the overall experience of the day that sticks with her. “The camaraderie of all these people from different walks of life coming together to do something good for others,” she says. “What better way to embrace the whole idea of what the holidays are about?”

What does Union Station Foundation do the rest of the year? Its Family Center provides emergency shelter for an average of 60 families per year; its Adult Center provides emergency shelter for 150 adults per year; its Euclid Villa provides transitional housing for fourteen homeless families at a time, from which all moved on to permanent housing last year.

Union Station Foundation also operates SOURCES, a career development and job placement program, and provides medical and mental health services for 1500 homeless adults and children a year. On top of all that, Union Station Foundation serves breakfast and lunch to ah average of 150 homeless people a day.

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