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Church helps those who need a warm holiday boost

There were smiles and tears last Wednesday as dozens of volunteers gathered at St. Ambrose Episcopal Church in Claremont to prepare for the 19th annual Thanksgiving Day Meal.

The smiles shone on the faces of participants who knew their work would result in 3000 turkey lunches for people who couldn’t afford a hot meal, or who would otherwise be spending Thanksgiving alone. The tears stemmed from the 200 pounds of onions being steadily chopped by volunteer sous chefs, to be tossed into enough stuffing to fill 30 catering trays.

In the 5 years that Temple Beth Israel congregant Don Bloch has been coming to St. Ambrose to help out with the holiday meal, he has seen the number of guests grow exponentially.

“There are more people because of the way the economy is,” he noted while expertly wielding a turkey-carving knife.

Mr. Bloch’s teenaged son, Josh, was busy in the St. Ambrose kitchen, helping cook celery and onions for the stuffing. Being part of the massive volunteer event was good practice for the Life Scout, who will soon have to coordinate a service project of his own in order to earn his Eagle Scout badge.

“Helping the less fortunate is really good for the community,” he said.

The Thanksgiving meal put together each year at St. Ambrose features turkey with all the trimmings: mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables, bread and, of course, a slice of pie. Plate by plate, the feast involves 200 turkeys, 4 cases of celery and 400 pounds of instant potato flakes, among other ingredients.

The latter fall under the purview of longtime volunteer John Johnson, who is affectionately known as “The Potato King” because he oversees mashed potato preparation. With the help of some 20 volunteers, he boils the potato flakes and then stirs in milk and liquid butter.

“I actually think they’re better than mashed potatoes made from fresh potatoes,” he said.

With meals served at 4 locations in Pomona as well as at St. Ambrose, the holiday effort requires significant coordination. Food and helping hands are provided by community members as well as representatives from an array of local churches and organizations: St. Ambrose, Life Bible Fellowship, Claremont Presbyterian Church, Temple Beth Israel, the city of Claremont, The Gap Food Bank, Kiwanis Club of Claremont and Claremont Sunrise Rotary. Several local businesses also donated food this Thanksgiving, including Vons in Upland, Curves of La Verne and Costco of Montclair.

While it takes a village, as the saying goes, there is one woman ultimately responsible for the annual culinary commemoration.

Twenty years ago, Kim McCurdy cooked a big Thanksgiving dinner for her family and found herself faced with considerable leftovers. She packed the uneaten Thanksgiving food in a box and took it to the Pomona Library to share with local homeless people.

Ms. McCurdy, who serves as kitchen manager and hunger ministry coordinator for St. Ambrose, found the impromptu mission deeply satisfying. She spoke to Father Doug Edwards, asking if the church could raise some money for the following Thanksgiving, with the aim of feeding not only the homeless but also senior citizens and college students with no place to go for the holiday.

“He said, ‘We have something going on. We have to keep doing it,’” Ms. McCurdy recalled.

By 1996, the event had grown to the point where it was feeding 300 people. It also grew in its organizational capacity, with Ms. McCurdy being joined in her efforts by her catering partner, Gayle Jensen. By Thanksgiving of 1999, roughly 1200 people were partaking in the hot turkey meal. 

Ms. Jensen and Ms. McCurdy, who was a chef with Cal Poly Pomona’s Hotel and Restaurant Management program before retiring, need every ounce of their catering experience for the gargantuan Thanksgiving meal. This year, they oversaw 300 volunteers, coordinated donations from numerous organizations and community members, and started buying supplies 2 weeks in advance. 

“We go everywhere,” Ms. Jensen said of their marketing excursions.

Those who eat at St. Ambrose always get a little something extra in the form of a piano performance by Tim  Rotolo, a member of Life Bible Fellowship in Upland. Now 19, he has been playing ragtime, jazz and other upbeat, old-time favorites during the Thanksgiving meal since he was 5.

“It’s an enjoyable thing to do,” he said. “It adds to the event.”

Ms. McCurdy’s daughter Jullie also adds to the event by taking time to talk with anyone who shows up in need of a little company.

“A lot of people are not homeless, but they may be single and alone. Often [guests] are people who have had jobs and have degrees, but times are tough,” she said.

Many people are embarrassed to be asking for what they view as a handout, an attitude Jullie hopes to dispel.

“No one should be alone on Thanksgiving. I just sit there and chitchat and learn their stories. It’s really wonderful,” she said.

For those who benefit from St. Ambrose’s hunger ministry, the feeling is mutual. A 20-year-old young woman who asked that her name be withheld credits Ms. McCurdy with setting her life, once on a downward spiral, on a positive course. Catherine, as she will be known for the purposes of this article, came to St. Ambrose as a 17-year-old after hearing there was free food there. She had been kicked out of her house by her mother during her senior year of high school and, after moving here from Florida, found herself with no job and few prospects.

Ms. McCurdy put Catherine to work helping her cater, both to the homeless and to the weekly Kiwanis meetings held at St. Ambrose. Eventually, she found a job in the Claremont Village, which Ms. McCurdy supplemented with groceries and a bit of money. Thus fortified, Catherine recently fulfilled her dream of moving to Colorado. There, she has found a job and a passion: teaching Sunday School. She returned to Claremont this Thanksgiving to visit her mentor and to help out with the ministry that helped her so much.

“I had no one,” she said. “Kim was my mother.”

Andrew Pelizarrarás is another person who counts Ms. McCurdy as his family. Mr. Pelizarrarás came to St. Ambrose a couple of months ago looking for a meal. Since then, he has helped out with the hunger ministry, washing a seemingly endless array of pots and pans and taking in the positive atmosphere.

“I was beat up my dad and brothers,” he said, explaining some of the circumstances that have lead to his financial hardship. “I came here looking for food and was able to have some light in my life.”

Having been helped by Ms. McCurdy and her crew, he is eager to “pay it forward.”

“I believe in karma, that when you help someone it comes back,” Mr. Pelizarrarás said. “Cause and effect: It’s called sympathetic magic.”

As Ms. McCurdy prepared to help oversee yet another Thanksgiving feast, her daughter Jullie and her husband John prepared to celebrate another holiday amidst a bustling sea of need. They don’t complain.

“She wouldn’t be my mom if she was not out feeding the homeless and giving to others,” Jullie said. “My mom has the biggest heart on earth.”

And after 43 years of marriage, Mr. McCurdy has likewise learned to roll up his shirtsleeves and lend a hand.

“She’s always been that way,” he said of his wife’s incessant helping spirit. “That’s why I married her.”

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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