Thankful, Needy Share Thanksgiving Bounty

Times Staff Writers

Southern Californians celebrated Thanksgiving by pitching in at a rescue mission in Oxnard, jogging in turkey trots for charity in Long Beach and Dana Point and telling jokes to those enjoying a free feast at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood.

At the Ventura County Rescue Mission in Oxnard, volunteers dished out Thanksgiving fare to more than 800 eager diners on Wednesday and Thursday.

The mission -- a religious organization that offers shelter, counseling and job assistance for homeless men -- drew volunteers from throughout the county.

As participants trooped in for a chapel service before dinner, two dozen volunteers formed a double line, welcoming each arrival with a handshake and a "Happy Thanksgiving!"

Later, paper plates laden with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and green beans were passed down long tables, and volunteers circulated with big pitchers of punch.

"It's not about the food," said Willie Brown, 53, an out-of-work bus driver who said he was down on his luck after financial setbacks, his mother's death and an assault last fall that left his face scarred. "It's about the place, the ambience, the fact that they're here for us."

Most of the 60 or so volunteers were people simply seeking to do good on a day that seemed made for it. A few, like Gino Thoos, were giving back after receiving help from the rescue mission.

"This place saved my life," said Thoos, 31, a middleweight boxer working construction until his planned comeback next year. "After my divorce, I just sat on my boat in Santa Barbara, killing myself with booze and drugs."

In Hollywood, nearly 2,600 people showed up at the Laugh Factory, which has sponsored free Thanksgiving feasts for the community since 1979. Club owner Jamie Masada, who ordered more than 100 turkeys for Thursday's event, said he started the tradition because he had no family with whom to share the holidays when he moved to Los Angeles from Iran. "A lot of people come here with big hearts and no money," he said.

The dinner was initially geared toward comics, who often move to Hollywood with dreams of making it big. Now, he said, it's open to everyone. Volunteer comics serve up jokes while everyone else chows down.

"It's great that we're in a community like this," said Marcela Takayana, who brought her husband, Mike, and daughter Monique, 9. "We're fortunate to live in such a kind city when times are tough."

The family is struggling to pay its bills while also caring for Takayana's disabled brother and elderly mother, Marcela Takayana said. Monique, who ate some apple pie, said she was excited to be allowed inside a comedy club, a privilege usually reserved for adults.

But most of all, she said: "I'm thankful for having a good family."

"Thanksgiving, to me, means getting together and eating a feast. I'm lucky to be here."

In the San Fernando Valley, more than 400 people gathered at Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village for a free dinner that has been held on Thanksgiving for the last three years. Organizers ordered 500 pounds of turkey.

Bernard S. Cohen, 75, of Sherman Oaks, a member of the Jewish War Veterans, sat at an outdoor table across from a 55-year-old homeless man named J.D. Although the two did not know each other, and discovered they differed on political views, they became friends.

Cohen, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, began arguing in support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, saying it was helping the Iraqis. But J.D., a veteran of the Vietnam War who did not give his last name, said he believed U.S. motives in Iraq were selfish and political rather than humanitarian.

They calmly heard each other's sides, interjecting an occasional "good point" or "I agree." Then they discovered they both used to work for the same company.

"Hey, I like talking to you, J.D.," Cohen said.

"We have a lot more in common than I thought," J.D. said, adding: "There's a lot to be thankful for, and I'm thankful to be here."

Cohen said he was thankful that his grandparents immigrated to America in the early 1900s. "I'm in a free country, born and raised in a free country. There are so many different cultures here. You sit across from someone and you don't even know how much you have in common."

In Canoga Park, 1,000 people, including cleaners, cooks and laborers, gathered at the Guadalupe Community Center to eat turkey, green beans, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy while a magician and a clown entertained them.

In Long Beach, 850 people showed up to donate food such as rice, beans, macaroni and cheese to needy families. Some ran in the 5K or 10K "turkey trot" to raise money for abused women, the homeless and other causes.

More than 10,000 runners in Dana Point took part in another fun run, starting as early as 7 a.m. Organizers hoped to raise about $50,000 for the Second Harvest Food Bank, which provides food to about 220,000 people each month through 385 member agencies in the county.

In Orange County, 15,000 people turned out for the annual dinner put on by Frank Garcia, owner of La Casa Garcia in Anaheim. They ate more than 900 turkey dinners cooked and served by more than 1,000 volunteers, including Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim) and Auxiliary Bishop of Orange Jaime Soto.

The event began 17 years ago, when the restaurant fed 300. Volunteers serve people who wait in lines half a block long for dinner.

Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein and David Reyes contributed to this report.

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