Simi Family Feeds a Need

Times Staff Writer

As they have for the past dozen years, the Witeby family will pile into a couple of cars this morning and drive from suburban Simi Valley to central Los Angeles for a Thanksgiving feast complete with all the trimmings.

All they have to do is prepare it first -- no easy feat considering they'll peel and mash 50 pounds of potatoes, boil and butter a veritable garden of vegetables and roast a flock of turkeys and pair of hams. That is the workload the Witebys have shouldered since adopting the Thanksgiving Day tradition of feeding seriously ill children and their families at the Los Angeles Ronald McDonald House.

Since 1991, the family of five has given up its own Thanksgiving meal to fix a bountiful dinner for the McDonald House, which provides a long-term, low-cost refuge for families of children undergoing treatment at area hospitals for cancer and other serious illnesses.

Joined over the years by extended family and friends, the Witebys lead an eight-hour Thanksgiving Day charge that ends up feeding more than 100 people but also nourishes their own family in ways they never imagined.

"What we wanted to do is help families that needed help and it has made a big impact on all of us," said Curt Witeby, who launched the turkey-day tradition along with his wife, Theresa, and children Scott, Jennifer and Heidi.

"It's tremendous to help," Witeby said. "We probably get more out of this than a lot of the [McDonald House] families do."

The Witebys were introduced to the Ronald McDonald House in 1990 after the daughter of a family friend was diagnosed with a brain tumor. They had never heard of the charity before and were unaware of its efforts to shelter and support hundreds of families a year.

Curt Witeby began by helping raise money for the house and soon found himself on the charity's volunteer board of trustees. Then the Thanksgiving dinner idea popped up, and a tradition was born.

They started out feeding 16 families and increased their output as the house expanded to 32 rooms, then to 35.

The Witebys haven't done it alone. Theresa Witeby's parents, sister and niece regularly lend a hand. As do family friends from Agoura Hills, Donn and Linda Jakosky and their two children.

At 24, Scott Witeby is the oldest of the Witeby children and has been mashing potatoes and baking pies on Thanksgiving Day at the McDonald House since he was 12. Now a graduate of the University of Arizona and an accountant working in Phoenix, he flies home every year to take part.

"It's one of the most rewarding experiences I have been a part of," said Scott Witeby, who was scheduled to fly in Wednesday night.

"I think it's the one holiday where it's more important, at least for me and my family, to give to other families. And it's just unbelievable how much gratitude people have for our family doing that."

Vincent M. Bryson, executive director of the Los Angeles Ronald McDonald House, said he can't thank the Witebys and other volunteers enough.

Bryson said the Los Angeles house receives help from between 150 and 250 volunteers each year, services critical to its ability since 1980 to provide more than 15,000 families with a place to stay during their time of need.

And it's the kind of help the house will continue to count on as it embarks on a 56-room expansion, bringing the number of rooms to 91 and making the Los Angeles facility the largest of its kind in the world.

"Ours is the kind of place where, once you visit, you understand immediately why such a place is needed," Bryson said. "This family is a shining example of how volunteers really provide the lifeblood of this organization."

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