In Pasadena, a Thanksgiving meal like no other

More than 4,000 hungry people and some 2,000 volunteers shared one big Thanksgiving Day meal Thursday at Pasadena's Central Park.

The festive gathering on a warm and sunny afternoon marked the 36th year for Pasadena-based Union Station Homeless Services' Thanksgiving Dinner in the Park.

Pairing diners down on their luck with those who count their blessings by sharing food and cheer, the event has become a Pasadena holiday tradition second only to the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year's Day.

"Everyone's thankful to be around. It brings people together," said diner Ardis Rivers, 56, who was homeless in Pasadena with his wife Ann until a nonprofit group helped the couple get into transitional housing last year.

More than 375 turkeys, 60 gallons of gravy and 500 pounds of stuffing were prepared by Union Station volunteers or delivered from a caravan of donors whose cars lined Raymond Avenue on Thursday morning, said Helen Renner, who has cooked for the event the past 18 years.

"It's a joy to see everyone and work for them," said Renner, 89, who began serving meals twice a week at Union Station after she retired from working with disabled children.

Donated food wended its way through a network of preparation tables to one of six 50-foot buffet lines and finally onto the plates of dinner guests.

"Over here they treat you good. It's a pleasant mood," said Jose Rodriguez, 60, a resident of a single-room occupancy building near downtown L.A.'s Skid Row.

While waiting in a dessert line, Rodriguez chatted with Yvonne Lu, one of dozens of volunteers given the friendly task of striking up conversations with people who appeared to be alone.

This was the fourth time that Lu, an Arcadia resident and co-host of the "Eat, Shop, Laugh" radio show on Radio Korea AM-1540 in Los Angeles, has attended Thanksgiving Dinner in the Park.

"It's become my tradition. Some of the guests remember me," she said. "I'm happy to give where I can, even if it's just to chat with someone."

Joseph Saceris, Union Station's director of volunteer and community programs, said greeters have one of the event's more important jobs.

"For people who feel ignored or marginalized, having someone to talk to on the holidays is a pretty remarkable gift," Saceris said. "Just an ordinary conversation you'd have in a grocery line doesn't happen every day for these folks."

Thanksgiving Dinner in the Park draws so many volunteers that many had to wait their turn to work on a serving line. But Saceris also gave credit to hundreds of others who began cooking and carving turkeys as early as Monday to ensure the festivities kicked off promptly at noon.

Nearly 200 birds were prepared at a Southern California Edison test kitchen in Irwindale, said facility manager Andre Saldivar.

Students in the Culinary Arts and Hospitality Academy at Blair High School cooked more than 80 turkeys, said schools spokesman Adam Wolfson.

Pasadena restaurants also pitched in. To free up volunteers readying for the big day, King's Row Gastropub, Dog Haus and redwhite+bluezz catered Wednesday's daily meal for the homeless at Union Station.

"Anybody might be one circumstance or situation from being homeless or in need," said volunteer Thai Edwards, who runs the Body Couture fitness studio in Pasadena. "Maybe it's just a smile or shaking hands, but it's good to know you're helping someone out."

-- Joe Piasecki, Times Community News