In a single afternoon, people who have called clammy, sewage-ridden bridges their homes, had their lives threatened with drug addictions, and have fallen through limbo to lunacy came together for dinner.
Thanksgiving morning at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Downtown Los Angeles set off with a group of selfless volunteers from Brothers’ Helpers, an independent, non-profit organization.
The day started as early as 6 a.m.. Tables were dressed in white cloth and sprinkled with crimson rose petals, and chairs were accompanied by festive orange and brown balloons.
The auditorium beneath the decorated surface was comparable to an elf’s workshop. Tempting aromas of turkey and buttery potatoes flooded from the kitchen, which was crammed with at least 10 volunteers. Endless rows of tables were outlined by nearly 50 volunteers who sliced and arranged cakes, pies and other desserts.
The crew was colorfully diverse in age, gender and race but they all radiated the same uplifting energy. The contagious smiles they walked around with as if there was some sort of special moring coffee.
Willie Olson may have had something to do with their spirits. He was wandering around cracking jokes and waking people up like a cheerleader.
His father, John Olson, founded Brothers’ Helpers with a few people in 2003. Willie Olson now runs operations while John administers schools in Africa.
Willie is one of eight siblings and began helping his dad after losing his job.
“I had an ‘aha’ moment when I saw the desperation and hunger and people making decisions they shouldn’t,” said Olson. “Slowly but surely, this became something I needed to do.”
Olson knows many of the regulars by name and says he has been brought to tears several times by their stories.
He pointed out a man named Terry who has been there since day one. His hair was unruly, he wore ragged clothes and guarded large trash bags full of rubbish like they contained his worldly possessions.
“He was a sketch artist at Walt Disney,” said Olson. “His wife and daughter were killed…it was an unfortunate death and it devastated him. It pushed him over the edge and his mind is not what it used to be.”
Outside, a line of a hundred people wrapped the block nearly to Olvera Street across the way.
At the front of line, there was an unexpected group distributing clothes. The biker groups Asylum Ryders and Redline, who were appropriately dressed in leather jackets.
“We all gathered the clothes from our families,” said Jingle Rapiz, 36, president of the LA Asylum Ryders. “It took three days for us to gather at least a truck bed full of clothes.”
Both biker groups donated 60 pies to the event.
Others partake in this event with a much deeper intent.
“I was an addict for 37 years. I’ve been to prison 10 times and the bridge under Cesar Chavez Avenue was my home for many years,” said Jose Lopez of Pico Rivera, who helped at the event.
“I used to steal from my mother to support my habit,” said Lopez. His mother later died of cancer. Lopez admits that at the time he didn’t care, even at her funeral, because he was loaded on drugs.
Now Lopez is four years sober and has feed the homeless at this church for over two years.
“When I see people who are going what I went through, I tell them ‘Look, I’ve been there, let me guide you’.”
Another regular at the program travels to the downtown cathedral from Long Beach every night.
“The program is not just for the homeless; it’s for those who seek support,” said Jose Gonzalez, a retired special education teacher. “I met a 65-year-old woman who works 10 hours a day and still can’t afford food. So she comes here to get food and takes some home to her son.”
Gonzalez comes to talk and listen to people and says it’s like therapy.
“Right now I don’t have a job, so I decided to donate my time,” said Veronica Bautista, 29, a volunteer at the event. “It’s sad to hear kids complain about not having a phone or popular clothes when they don’t realize how lucky they really are.”
For some, it may take a block-length line of unfortunate people waiting for a simple meal to realize that their iPad-less office, 25-inch TV, and Ferrari-free garage may not be as life shattering as they once rationalized.
Donating money is hard with the economic downturn, but donating time is free and much more rewarding. There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer with organizations like Brothers’ Helpers who feed the homeless Monday through Friday.
It is located at 215 Foothill Blvd. in La Canada, and can be reached through its website, http://www.brothershelpers.org. Other local organizations that feed the homeless are: Union Rescue, L.A. Mission, Midnight Mission, Food on Foot, and many others.