Fire can't stop San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission's Thanksgiving feast

Despite a devastating fire in May, the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission hosts its annual Thanksgiving dinner

Georgina Rodriguez could feel the heat on her back in the middle of the night as she ran from the burning North Hollywood homeless shelter.

The teenager and her family watched in horror as the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission burned to the ground in May. The family of five had just settled in after living in the back of a moving truck. Once again, they didn't know where they would sleep at night.

The rescue mission's Saticoy Street emergency shelter was a total loss, displacing the 31 people staying there. The overnight fire, which started at an adjacent wood pallet warehouse, destroyed the mission's clothing and food warehouse, as well as vehicles used to deliver meals and portable showers.

Six months later, the mission has a long way to go to recover. But on Tuesday, it did what it always does for Thanksgiving: serve warm meals to hundreds of people from across the Valley.

"The need doesn't go away just because there's a fire," said Wade Trimmer, the mission's executive director. "There are more homeless families in the Valley than skid row … but they're sleeping in cars and parks. They're often hidden."

The San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission has been hosting its annual Thanksgiving feast for 15 years. At Tuesday night's dinner at Church on the Way in Van Nuys, many of the guests said there was so much joy in the room they weren't even aware there had been a devastating fire.

At tables decorated with pumpkins and flowers, the diners had spirited debates over which Thanksgiving food was best: The turkey? No, of course not. The pumpkin pie!

Volunteers served 1,600 pounds of turkey, 140 pounds of cranberry sauce and 80 pies. As a church choir sang "Amazing Grace," 52-year-old Mike Mercier stopped eating to sing along.

"I don't know anybody here, but it's family," said Mercier, who lives in temporary housing in North Hollywood.

Sitting next to him, Christina Greenan nodded her head. "We're all homeless," she said quietly, "and we're all together tonight."

At another table, Frank Fouther, 61, said the dinner was a highlight in a dark time. Last month, gang members broke into his Panorama City home. Afraid, he moved out and is staying with friends.

"I don't have a place to cook Thanksgiving dinner," he said. "But God is good. Any day I can give thanks is a good day."

Cloletta Brown sat with her son, Emmanuel Rae. Brown said they've been through it all: homelessness, eviction, living in shelters and motels. Brown was in jail when she gave birth, but she has worked hard to get them on their feet, she said.

Brown, who now lives in Section 8 housing in Sherman Oaks, has come to the Thanksgiving dinner for several years. This year, Emmanuel will turn 12 on Thanksgiving Day.

"This dinner has just lifted us up," she said.

Volunteers served about 450 people. After dinner, many came to hug mission leader Trimmer.

"Every year feels special, but this year more so because of all the mission's been through," Trimmer said. "These people are resilient. I just have the utmost respect for them."

Since the fire, the mission has raised $1.5 million in donations and is trying to raise $4.5 million more to finish repairs and to build a new family shelter.

The new shelter, going up in Northridge, will have 90 beds — triple the capacity of the one that burned. In the old shelter, there was never an empty bed and always a waiting list, Trimmer said. The Northridge facility is expected to open in the spring.

Georgina and her family have been staying in a temporary shelter run by the mission since the fire. Her mother works three jobs, and her father is a day laborer.

Few of her high school friends know what the Rodriguez family has gone through. They lost their home after her parents lost their jobs following a series of medical problems.

Her parents and two sisters lived for several days last winter in the back of a U-Haul truck. The nights were cold, Georgina said, because they had to leave the back door partially open so it wouldn't lock them in.

They had been at the mission's North Hollywood shelter for about two months — finally getting used to some normalcy — when it burned down.

At the Thanksgiving dinner, 14-year-old Georgina, who has a big smile and curly hair, helped volunteers greet guests.

Her family survived the fire and had a roof over their heads — and that was a lot to be thankful for, she said.

"For the past three years, we haven't really had a Thanksgiving celebration," she said. "It's like we're getting back to how it used to be. It's strange because I'm not used to it anymore, but it's nice."

Her father, Jorge, who has a shy smile, put his arm around his daughter and kissed her forehead.

In Spanish, he said softly that the holiday this year meant "a lot of things."

"It's a day to be thankful to God," he said. "And that's what we're doing. Today, I actually understand the meaning of Thanksgiving."

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Twitter: @haileybranson

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