Victor Valley Rescue Mission’s Thanksgiving Meal Feeds Thousands
Posted in the Victor Valley Daily Press – November 21, 2017
(To read article in the Daily Press CLICK HERE)
VICTORVILLE — Jeremy George approached a small stage on the Victor Valley High School (VVHS) campus to address a crowd of hundreds that would eventually swell to thousands.
From the microphone, he thanked a legion of sponsors before leading the group in prayer, a reflective moment that kicked off the Victor Valley Rescue Mission’s Great Thanksgiving Banquet, which fed approximately 1,800 homeless and low-income citizens last year alone.
“We’re expecting, hopefully, 2,000 (this year),” George said. “There’s a process of about a month and a half (to) two months when we start planning. We kind of roll right out of our Donor Appreciation Banquet … at the end of September right straight into planning the Thanksgiving event.”
The banquet is a labor of love for George, 38, the Rescue Mission’s volunteer coordinator, and the volunteers who come together each November to provide not only a feast, but compassion.
Diners are escorted to their tables inside the VVHS cafeteria and waited on in a setting that breeds conversation, understanding and warm embraces. It’s an endeavor George believes in because he was once the one in need and benefitted from the organization’s help.
“I came out of a four-year prison term straight to the Rescue Mission (and) went into the program,” he said. “I had met Jesus already, but it gave me an opportunity to grow. To get a solid foundation for me to be able to stand and continue to stand.”
The banquet was first held in 2008, “across the street” at First Southern Baptist Church, according to Rescue Mission Director Bill Edwards, who — like George — conquered his own demons en route to his role with the Rescue Mission.
“I’m clean and sober 10 years myself, and I’ve been married since I was 17 years old to a beautiful woman — Marianne — and I spent many a Thanksgivings lost in my drug addiction,” Edwards said. “So it means a lot. It means a lot that these people can spend time, even if it’s not (with) their family, in a place that they’re loved. They’re loved beyond homelessness … beyond their situation … (and) beyond whatever label society might put on them. And all for the glory of God.”
The banquet has grown each year, and moved shop to VVHS to accommodate equally increasing numbers five years ago. Edwards said hundreds of people ensure its annual success.
“Not just 10 or 20, but you’re talking about agencies and private donors and just people who love what we do,” he said. ”(They) partner with us year after year to help feed the community and make sure people have a Thanksgiving.”
One of the lovers of the Rescue Mission is Kelli Ventura, a VVHS culinary arts teacher. Ventura and her crew began preparing 200 turkeys, stuffing, green beans, cranberry sauce and 700 pounds of mashed potatoes two weeks ago.
“We cook everything and then we carve everything,” she said. “What we have to do then is we have to like flash freeze it and reheat it today. So we had 700 trays of food to heat up today.”
Ventura has led the food-preparation effort the last five years, and she enlists the services of current and former VVHS students, as well as friends in the foodservice industry, along the way.
“Without them I couldn’t do it,” she said. “Some of the little ones are my kids, or my nieces and nephews or cousins. It’s definitely a family affair. My husband’s been here the last few days.”
Many VVHS students, who are on Thanksgiving break, walk or skateboard to campus in order to help. Monday was particularly challenging; Ventura said between 12 and 13 hours were necessary for finishing touches.
The fruits of their labor are visible from the kitchen, however, on the smiling faces of well-fed guests like 54-year-old Henry Loera, a formerly homeless Victorville resident.
“I appreciate it very much,” Loera said. ”(This is my) second time. I came last year … You got to accept what you can get and appreciate it. A lot of people don’t know how to do that. I mean, I learned to eat what’s in front of you.”
The day wasn’t only for sustenance, though. Outside the cafeteria — near where George led the prayer — fun was included in the form of face painting, live music and a bounce house.
Booths were set up to offer crucial services and, for the first time in the banquet’s history, a HOPE Worldwide mobile medical unit provided care to the needy free of charge, according to Jeanetta Tobias with HOPE’s Inland Empire chapter.
“The mobile van, actually we have a doctor and staff … at all the sites we go to to do the treatments,” Tobias said. “We do give out medication to our patients and then we revisit the same site every 30 days so we can refill the medication for them.”
For George, the HOPE van is an example of the banquet’s continued expansion, which highlights both the Rescue Mission’s outreach and the ever-present need for it.
“Two years (ago we fed) about 1,300. Last year was 1,800,” George said. “It’s just proof of the fact that homelessness and low income is increasing in the High Desert. It’s not a problem that’s going away. It’s unfortunately getting worse.”
And while that doesn’t make the job easier, it does allow for rumination on what it means to meet that challenge and have a positive impact.
“It makes my heart happy to be able to do stuff like this,” George said. “I haven’t lived a homeless life ever, but I faced the possibility of being homeless … I didn’t know where I was going to go. If it wasn’t for the Rescue Mission, I wouldn’t have had a place to live.
“So being able to reach back into the community (to) people who are in similar or worse circumstances than I was, there’s no greater joy than that honestly.”