Community Dinner Activist Goes Back for Seconds : Holidays: After a low turnout last year, Donn Delson is opening the Christmas Day gathering to everyone.


Donn Delson wasn't about to let the low turnout at the free Christmas Day dinner he organized last year dull his holiday cheer. This year, with only 200 pounds of turkey compared to 600 pounds last year, the Thousand Oaks celebration continues--12-foot candy-cane decorations and all.

As a Reform Jew, Delson brought together three Conejo Valley Jewish congregations to support the community dinner.

"We don't have a problem working on that day and assisting people to make sure their holiday is an enjoyable one," Delson said. "It's a warm place to be on Christmas with a lot of people who want to be together."

Organizers had no idea how many people would show up at the Thousand Oaks High School cafeteria last year, but arranged enough food and volunteers to accommodate 2,500 people.

Only about 100 attended, but the service they received might have been the best in town, with volunteers outnumbering guests nearly 2 to 1. The extra food was donated to local charities.

Part of the reason behind the low attendance was the small number of homeless people living in the Conejo Valley. "We are fortunate in the Conejo that the homeless situation isn't greater than it is," Delson said.

To draw more people this year, Delson is broadening the scope of the event. "We're encouraging and inviting anyone and everyone to be our guest," Delson said. "It's a dinner that's open to everyone."

Tracy Thall, a 17-year-old Westlake High School senior, is returning to volunteer again.

"You can tell what a difference you are making to the people who are there," she said. "We're hoping there will be more people because it really was a nice thing."

This year, Christmas Day coincides with the last day of Hanukkah--an eight-day Jewish holiday that celebrates the historical triumph of the Maccabees over the Syrians in 165 BC.

In the ecumenical spirit that characterizes the Conejo Community Holiday Dinner, there will be both Christmas caroling and Hanukkah songs. However, potato pancakes, or latkes--a traditional Jewish food for Hanukkah--will not be served. "It's hard to cook latkes for 500 or 600 people," Delson said.

The halls of Thousand Oaks High's cafeteria will be fully decked for the event. Debbie Heaslip, who is organizing the decorations, said the display will include 10-foot elves, three-foot dreidels, six-foot bows and three-foot menorahs.

To ensure that the dinner tradition continues for many years to come, Delson has formed Conejo Community Dinners Inc., a nonprofit corporation dedicated to organizing such events throughout the year.

The group is accepting donations through Los Robles Bank, 33 W. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, Calif. 91360.

The Thousand Oaks High School cafeteria is at 2323 N. Moorpark Road, and the event will take place from noon to 5 p.m. Thousand Oaks Cab Co. is providing free round-trip transportation: (805) 495-3500.

Other Christmas Dinners

* Oxnard Rescue Mission, 234 E. 6th St., will serve a Christmas Eve banquet Sunday from 4:30 to 6 p.m., featuring a full ham dinner and entertainment. On Christmas Day, the mission will hold a banquet from noon to 2 p.m., co-sponsored by the Tried Stone Church of God.

* Project Understanding's Family to Family program will serve food from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Christmas Day, 660 N. Ventura Ave., in Ventura.

* Armory Warming Shelter in Oxnard, 351 S. K St., will serve three meals on Christmas Day, including a morning brunch, lunch and dinner.

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