SOS a rock to those in need

On chilly winter Malibu evenings, the community dinner hosted by the nonprofit social outreach group SOS (Standing on Stone) at Webster Elementary every Thursday is appreciated even more fervently.

Traipsing up Pacific Coast Highway, hiking down Malibu Canyon Road or emerging from the shadowy shrubs that line the canyons, people who fly under the social radar gather for music, conviviality and a warm meal donated by SOS’s many volunteers. Some might be down on their luck; some clearly have mental health issues, some might be employed, but in jobs that don’t cover basic life necessities. All are welcomed and fed.

“We don’t like to say ‘homeless,’” SOS co-founder Hollie Packman said. “It’s more people in transition. The economy has hit a lot of people hard the last few years. We try to bring a sense of community to them. And we have a lot of help.”

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Packman and husband, Dan, founded SOS in 2000 after meeting an itinerant worker through the Labor Exchange who did some household repairs for them. His “uncommon story,” Packman said, spurred them to recognize the community of underserved living right in the middle of Malibu, an ostensibly wealthy enclave.

They recruited some Pepperdine student volunteers, made appeals for donations to the neighborhood and launched Thursday evening community dinners for those who might need a hot meal. The first week, perhaps 20 men showed up.

“When we first volunteered to help, only a couple dozen men would show up,” Libby Perrin, who has been volunteering with SOS for 12 years, said. “Now there’s over 100 each week and a lot more women and even families come.”

“Originally, we would just bring two big casseroles,” Perrin’s husband, Ken, added. “Now we round up at least 10 or 12. Plus whatever else we can find.”

Whatever else includes men’s work clothes and boots, blankets and tents. Piled on a large table at the rear of Webster’s cafeteria, where men and women lined the long tables, were stacks of work shirts and jackets. 

“We always need more,” Packman said. “Sleeping bags are real important now. Winter clothes, coats, they’re always appreciated. Donors can always bring them here at 6:30 Thursday nights or drop them off at Artifac Tree (Malibu’s local thrift store on Cross Creek Road).” 

As the years passed, SOS has brought many lifelines to a community some might prefer to ignore. Packman said their outreach services include many other programs. 

Most popular among them is Home Sweet Home, in which SOS provides first and last months’ rent, plus letters of reference for men and women who have managed to find a job that can support them, but who can’t quite manage to get ahead enough to satisfy leasing office demands. 

“Since we started that program, we’ve managed to get 400 people off the streets,” Packman said. 

Another program facilitates family reunification. Packman said that young people will often find themselves drifting, having run away from home for whatever reason. SOS confirms that they have a safe and welcoming home to return to, and provides bus tickets to get them there. 

“Now we serve populations coming from Oxnard to Santa Monica,” Packman said. “We have lots of Pepperdine students who volunteer. They bring a really sweet presence.” 

Packman took a master’s degree in communication at Pepperdine and runs an executive coaching firm when not occupied with SOS demands. She said their operating budget of about $100,000 annually is met usually through small, individual donations. Staff volunteers come from Pepperdine, local churches and synagogues, and the neighborhood. 

While chowing down on lasagna, the diners are entertained by Dan Packman, who acts as a one-man cheering section for the crowd. 

“Who’s here for the first time,” Dad asked. “You? Welcome! Great to have you here. Who has some good news? Anyone?” 

“My sister’s getting married in one month,” said one woman. “I think I might have a part-time job,” said one man shyly. “It’s warmer,” said another. 

Many participants are long-time guests. Ray Arvin sheepishly accepted congratulatory hugs from SOS volunteers while being awarded a monogrammed hoodie that spelled out “I Survived 100 Days at SOS” across the back. Arvin said that he always liked the meals served, but that pasta was perhaps his favorite. 

“It’s real comfort food,” he said.

Guests were uniformly grateful for the opportunity SOS’s Thursday evening dinners gave. Some end up volunteering themselves. 

“I’ve been helping every Thursday for the past six months,” one man, who called himself Ohio Dan, said. “It’s a joy. I’m here to scoop some food for everyone.” 

Even those with more discerning tastes had nothing but praise for the SOS meal. Carl, who wouldn’t give his last name, said that he had been a chef for 20 years. 

“I’d give the meals here four stars every time,” he said. 

More information about SOS may be found at www.sosmalibu.org 

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