Humble origins for annual Turkey Day dinner

The annual Malibu Community Thanksgiving Dinner is expected to feed between 250 and 300 people this Thursday for Thanksgiving. But the event started on a much smaller scale 16 years ago, with little more than a few people looking to help others in their community. 

This Thursday, the Malibu United Methodist Church will serve up a feast for Malibu’s less fortunate at the 16th Annual Malibu Community Thanksgiving Dinner. What started out as one Malibu mom’s simple idea to help local working people during the holidays has since blossomed into a community-wide event that enlists contributions from local houses of worship, Cub Scout troops, area restaurants, amateur chefs and a team of neighborhood volunteers.

Organizer Diane Malecha said that when she ran into a friend, Ron Hayes, at the movies one September evening 16 years ago, they started talking about doing something for the workers that showed up at the Day Labor Exchange for the holidays.

“This was before they even had a trailer set up,” Malecha said. “Ron was really into helping that community and I suggested we do a Thanksgiving dinner. He said, ‘It’s your baby. You organize and I’ll get them there.’ So, I got in touch with the pastor of our church (Malibu United Methodist) and we made plans.”

“There were a lot of unanswered questions in organizing that first year,” Malecha said. How many people would come? Where would she find food? Would anyone help to set up the event? What if the Health Department showed up?

But she started calling around (“This was before email,” Malecha said) and found plenty of Malibuites ready to pitch in. Hays arranged for transportation for the day laborers, Malecha plugged in a CD player, put up decorations at the church and waited nervously for promised food donations to arrive. They ended up serving 50 grateful people. 

The second year, more volunteers signed up, like current co-organizer Janet Ettinger, and they enlisted some live entertainment—gospel singers and local musicians. Local acting coach Suzie Duff arranged for some of her students at the county Probation Department’s Camp Kilpatrick to join the crew for turkey dinner and some salient improvisation performances (“Locked Up in Malibu”). 

Ettinger found a donated bus and driver to troll Pacific Coast Highway for transient or homeless people who might appreciate a warm meal, and about 75 were served. 

Since then, the event has grown exponentially. This year, Malecha says they expect to serve 250 to 300 people, with nearly as many involved in cooking, serving and entertaining. As in years past, all the food is not only donated, but dropped off already prepared by dozens of local families. 

“The food just kind of shows up,” Malecha said. Like the parable of Jesus with the loaves and fish, “there always seems to be more than we know what to do with.” 

Ettinger and Malecha have also enlisted the next generation to contribute time and organizational skills. Ettinger’s daughter, Eden Ettinger, coordinates the 50-plus volunteers and said she “loves every minute of it.” Malibu High student Isaac Vandor has been involved with the event “since before I was born,” he said. He coordinates the logistics of food and supplies, including receiving paper goods (like plates and decorations) and desserts the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. 

“We’ll probably serve 20 turkeys and four or five hams this year,” Vandor said. “Then there’s every kind of side dish, even vegan dishes. We get pumpkin pies donated from the Boy Scouts, and local restaurants send over really great stuff. Spruzzo’s, Pavilions, the Cantina, they all contribute. It’s like Thanksgiving for the whole community.” 

Gift bags will be on hand for the guests with personal items such as shampoo, razors, hand lotion and toothbrushes. Vendors like Paul Mitchell Products make sizeable contributions, and local schools, Cub Scouts and Brownie troops help make up the rest. 

“We started this about 10 years ago,” Malecha said. “We get kids to put together the personal care bags and, last year, we gave out about 300.” 

The make-up of the visiting guests has changed a bit over the years, with more women and children showing up of late. Oscar Mondragon directs the Labor Exchange and said he still marvels at how many needy people get served every year. “We get more and more families showing up, since more and more women come to the Exchange looking for work,” Mondragon said. “We have families coming from L.A., the Valley, Oxnard; They’re so grateful for dinner and always look forward to it.” 

This year, Ettinger arranged for a Mariachi band to entertain, along with some local talent. Also on hand will be games for children, free haircuts and a clothing drive for their parents, and some basketball afterward to work off the holiday meal. “When we started, we didn’t know if any of this would work,” Malecha said. “Now, you can’t stop it!” 

The 16th Annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner is this Thursday at Malibu United Methodist Church, 30128 Morning View Dr., 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. For more information, contact Diane Malecha (Malibu United Methodist Church) at 310-589-1964 or Janet Ettinger (Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue) at 310.589.5508.