Grandmother Nurtures Body and Soul

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each Sunday afternoon, many homeless people walk miles to South Park in South-Central Los Angeles.

More arrive from the cars they live in near the park at 51st and San Pedro streets.

Once each week, a mouth-watering home-cooked meal turns the park into an oasis for 100 men, women and children as Gloria Gary, 57, spreads tablecloths over two park benches and serves a 3 p.m. spread of pinto beans, rice, vegetables, corn bread, cake and occasional chicken or fish.

"They don't leave a bean," says Gary. "I guess the food we cook reminds them of their moms.

"I call each of them Mr. and Mrs. There are rules. There is no smoking or profanity. We try to learn to care about each other and to meet each other's needs.

"Those people take care of me," she says. "There has never been trouble since I've been there. The gangs used to come later in the evening. But since the (gang) truce, there haven't been any problems."

Gary prepares the meals in her home in the Westmont-Athens section of Los Angeles.

Each Saturday afternoon she immerses 15 pounds of beans in water. At 2 a.m. Sunday she begins cooking the beans for 12 hours on a low flame, later adding onions and garlic for flavor.

"My grandmother would cook when they picked cotton in the fields outside Houston," Gary says. "She would cook beans with a low fire all day long. They make their own gravy and were totally delicious over rice when the hands came in at the end of the day."

At 2:30 p.m. each Sunday she loads the big iron pot of beans, 15 pounds of cooked rice and other foods in her car and heads for the park.

Serving the meal is a family affair.

Although roles may rotate, during a typical week daughter Catherine Gary shops for beans and rice.

Daughter Victoria Hardmon, called the Sweet Lady by the homeless, bakes cakes and serves beans.

Son Joe Gary, a former UCLA football player, dishes out vegetables and meat.

Granddaughter Kanae, 5, hands out napkins while granddaughter Keyunna, 10, and grandson Daren, 11, serve bread and dessert.

Brother-in-law Jerome Hardmon serves peppers and onions for flavoring.

Gloria Gary began feeding the homeless two years ago, eight years after "Mother" Lee Bolden, a member of Gary's church, started the project.

"I could see her gathering food after a banquet at church," Gary says. "One Thanksgiving I said, 'Mother Bolden, I will come and help you.' We baked turkey and made dressing and every trimming you could think of."

Bolden stopped going to the park last fall because of personal reasons, but she vows to return. In the meantime, Gary is coordinating the meal.

"I missed one Sunday in 1992 because my husband died and I was a little distraught," Gary says.

"(But) I felt compelled because I saw homeless mothers with children. My heart went out to the children. I see so many fine lives being lost."

Since arriving in Los Angeles 37 years ago, she has spent much of her time helping others.

She worked for a district PTA, helped found Los Angeles Southwest Community College and volunteered for 20 years at Washington High. She now works with a coalition opposed to rebuilding liquor stores in her area.

The widowed former nurse lives on a $1,250 monthly pension and spends $175 of that on the weekly meals. Her three children throw in an additional $250 a month, but Gary receives few other donations.

She cites the book of Proverbs, particularly Chapter 28, Verse 27, as motivation: "He that giveth onto the poor shall not lack. But he that hideth his eyes shall have many a curse."

With that guidance, she plans to cook for the homeless for a long time.

"No matter what kind of financial condition I'm in, I believe I'll never want," she says at her dining table, a Bible nearby and a religious program playing on television.

"I get just as much out of what I'm doing as the people I feed," she says. "It's a blessing for me."

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