A big helping of kindness

After 20 years, one would think organizers for a community-wide Thanksgiving Day feast would have a mapped-out agenda replete with detailed instructions and job descriptions.

Au contraire.

Advanced planning is not part of the recipe for this Laguna Beach tradition.

The Friendship Shelter and Neighborhood Congregational Church will once again partner on a Thanksgiving Day meal for the public, beginning at noon at the church at 340 St. Ann's Drive.

Volunteers expect to serve 600 to 700 buffet-style meals, with food and supplies provided by individuals, churches and community groups, a news release said.

Laguna Beach resident David Peck has helped organize volunteers for the annual Thanksgiving potluck for more than 20 years.

"It's slap-dash," Peck, 75, said of the annual meal, which used to be held at Bluebird Park.

Peck chairs the South County Cross-Cultural Council, a Laguna Beach-based civil rights advocacy nonprofit, which used to organize the event.

Volunteers arrive around 11 a.m., bringing pans full of mashed potatoes, salad and stuffing.

A small array of carvers slice hot turkeys and hams while volunteers set up a display and prepare sack lunches with the leftovers to give to the homeless and needy.

Even the gravy arrives hot.

Mary LaRusso, like Peck, has helped with the meal for at least 20 years and once again will cook some of the turkeys.

LaRusso, 59, used to cook eight birds at a time in the Neighborhood Congregational Church's ovens and transport them to Bluebird Park.

Kids loved the grass area, but cleanup was difficult, said LaRusso, a part-time night supervisor at the Alternative Sleeping Location shelter.

"There was no kitchen to clean up," said LaRusso, a Laguna Beach resident. "We'd have to [walk] to the bathrooms to wash our hands."

About five years ago, it rained on Thanksgiving morning, and organizers moved the meal to the church, where it's remained since, according to LaRusso.

Volunteers like to have at least 25 turkeys and didn't have all they needed, so LaRusso, who attends Neighborhood Congregational Church, recently asked the congregation for donations.

"I said, 'I need eight turkeys,'" LaRusso said. "Four people said I'll [cook] and deliver them, and a few other people chipped in $50 for me to buy the rest of them. Ask and people respond."

LaRusso usually starts thawing turkeys the Sunday before Thanksgiving. She cleans them Wednesday night and arrives at the church at 6:30 a.m. Thursday to cook.

One year organizers were short on turkeys, so Colin Henderson, one of Friendship Shelter's founders, decided to help out.

"[Henderson] ran back to his house and grabbed a turkey," LaRusso said. "His wife, Ellin, said, 'What did you do? That was what I was going to serve later that afternoon.'"

The turkey didn't make it back to the Hendersons' house, LaRusso said.

Peck has another turkey tale from when the event was held at Bluebird Park.

"Someone brought a semi-frozen turkey that needed thawing," Peck said, noting that donors are supposed to bring cooked poultry. "We had no fire to cook it."

Diners include homeless men and women, families and seniors, anyone who might be alone during the holiday.

Newspaper articles and word-of-mouth alert the community to the event and volunteers arrive to help, said Peck, who started volunteering for the Thanksgiving meal when he was a night supervisor at the Friendship Shelter.

About 100 volunteers have helped out during past events, LaRusso said.

"Families show up with their kids to impart [to the children] the value of serving," Peck said. "It's one of the best events in the community. People come from outlying communities like Irvine and Dana Point to help out.

"It's a community potluck, where everyone eats together. It's not the haves and have-nots."

Volunteers can arrive at 11 a.m. on Thanksgiving to help set up and are encouraged to clean up after the meal, if possible, according to the release.

The shelter will accept ready-to-eat turkeys and economy-size side dishes (such as those in large aluminum disposable containers). It asks that donors call (949) 494-6928 if they plan to bring food.

The Friendship Shelter, 1335 S. Coast Hwy., provides temporary housing, meals and support services such as individualized case management and job training for 32 men and women, according to the shelter's website.

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