Malibu dishes up community Thanksgiving


It was truly a day of community as Malibuites of all ages reached out to “people without shelter” on Thanksgiving. From the placemats painted by preschoolers and the drawings they gave guests, from preparing and serving a family’s best Thanksgiving recipe to Malibu High’s jazz octet performing on the patio, scores of residents contributed to the second annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner sponsored by Malibu’s houses of worship and held at Malibu United Methodist Church.

“The turnout is spectacular; it’s better than last year,” said Kathy Wilstein, who, along with her 7-year-old daughter Alissa, were part of at least 15 people from MUMC, the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church and Malibu Church of Christ on the three-table serving line.

While community activists Martin Sheen and Valerie Sklarevsky mingled with the crowd on the patio, and Robbie Steinbach of National Food Relief offered “Aren’t you glad you stopped by?” glasses of orange juice he had just squeezed, former Planning Commissioner Barbara Cameron, Samantha Danieten, 16, Emily Miller, 13, and Leah Seider washed dishes.

“We were not short on help or cleanup,” said Diane Malecha, who originated the community dinner idea and who, along with Sheryl Sher and Janet Ettenger of the Malibu Jewish Center, organized this year’s dinner. “We had over 100 volunteers, we estimate twice the amount of help serving twice the number of people served last year,” Malecha said.

The trio contacted agencies from Los Angeles to Ventura to bring homeless people, organized a clothing drive, signed up volunteers and had the Malibu Labor Exchange distribute signs, posters and flyers publicizing the event, said Malecha. Nearly 200 “people without shelter, including families or individuals who had no other place to go,” were served, said MUMC’s Rev. Larry Peacock.

The jazz octet is the brainchild of Steve Cole, a physician and a Malibu High School parent. He plays the piano, writes the group’s musical arrangements and pinch-hits for a saxophone player.

Who were some of the guests? People like Darrell Upshaw, a 47-year-old film editor, who, until a week ago might have spent Thanksgiving with his wife, three children and three stepchildren in Santa Clarita. He was one of 25 people brought by Carlos Verissimo, the Outreach/Intake Coordinator of Portals, a mental health rehabilitation service in South Central Los Angeles, “to have a sense of family.”

Upshaw said he is on the verge of divorce after battling severe mood swings and other effects of the congestive heart failure he was diagnosed with in 1994. Although he has worked in the motion picture business for nearly 30 years, he was “summarily denied” Social Security and other medical payments. “I didn’t have the knowledge or the health to pursue those benefits,” he said of the disease that leaves him extremely fatigued and causes short-term memory loss. Until recently, he lived off his wife’s income, unemployment insurance and a worker’s compensation settlement.

Rita Nunley, 29, is a medical claims processor who has worked with children in park recreation programs. She was laid off two years ago and has been the victim of domestic violence.

Verissimo says there is “no one reason,” why people are homeless. “We live in a shaking economy. Sometimes there are mental problems, somehow someone loses a job, something happens and it’s hard to come back.”

The dinner gave his organization’s “members” relief, Verissimo added. “They had the chance to hear music and talk to people out of South Central,” he said. “This community is doing a great job.”

The dinner was preceded by an ecumenical Thanksgiving service, where an offering was taken for the Malibu Emergency Shelter Project, which hopes to provide temporary shelter for homeless during the winter. Sheen is a member of the Emergency Shelter Task Force, which has been trying for nearly a year to get bureaucratic approval for a resident-donated trailer to be parked on county-owned land in the Civic Center.