COSTA MESA — There was no money to buy a ladle large enough to stir a 30-gallon pot in the beginning years of Someone Cares Soup Kitchen, so founder Merle Hatleberg used a boat oar.
People were hungry, and the late Hatleberg wasn't one to back down from a challenge, said Shannon Santos, her granddaughter.
In 1986, the small volunteer-based nonprofit, then called Merle's Soup Kitchen, was mobile.
For about 10 years, Hatleberg lugged that massive pot from churches to women's shelters and other locations to cook fresh soup for the hungry.
It wasn't until 1997 that she raised enough money through fundraising and a private loan to open a permanent kitchen on West 19th Street.
"Merle was brilliant in that she was able to identify a need in the community," Santos, now executive director of Someone Cares, said of her grandmother, who died in 2007. "Sadly, that need is still here. However, we look forward to the next 25 years of carrying on and offering a hand-up to those guests who come into our kitchen."
The nonprofit will host its 25th anniversary gala, "Dreams Come True," on Saturday evening to honor Hatleberg's vision. The event will feature food and drinks from area restaurants, live music and auction items donated by local businesses.
Helping others was instilled in Hatleberg at an early age, when her mother ran a boarding house in West Virginia and provided food to coal miners.
Later, as a wife and mother of eight, Hatleberg relied on the American Red Cross for five years. Her husband was wounded in the Korean War, leaving her with little means to support her large family.
These factors led to her devotion to helping others, Santos said.
Her efforts were recognized in 2003 by the American Red Cross, when she was honored with the Clara Barton Spectrum Award for Outstanding Women.
"I was fortunate that she was my grandmother," Santos said. "She was my mentor. I soaked up information like a sponge. She taught me that people, for the most part, when given the opportunity to help mankind, will rise to the occasion.
"People don't always know the proper path. She said that it is your responsibility to show them the path."
A photograph of the first day of Merle's Soup Kitchen and a hand-painted metal sign adorn the walls of Someone Cares.
Her daughter, Teri Hatleberg, who serves as the nonprofit's president, still owns one of the original aprons.
On the day that the permanent kitchen opened, Merle Hatleberg could finally put her pot down in one place.
"She did tear up, but I truly think that she could go to bed at night knowing that she had a home that would be here forever to help," Teri Hatleberg said.
Over the years, the nonprofit's recipients have returned to the soup kitchen to thank Merle Hatleberg and her surviving family.
The stories include battered women finding help for themselves and their children, school uniforms bought for a low-income family, a young man inspired to become a chef and many others.
"It's amazing after 25 years how many stories you have, how many people you've helped," Hatleberg said.
If You Go
What: Someone Cares 25th anniversary gala, "Dreams Come True"
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: 720 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa
Information: (949) 548-8861