(Photo by JUAN CARLO/THE STAR)
By Claudia Boyd-Barrett, Special to Ventura County Star – November 21, 2018
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For the first time in her adult life, 29-year-old Brianna Wise sat down this week to a full Thanksgiving meal, surrounded by friends, and without opiates coursing through her body.
From the age of 19, Wise struggled with prescription opioid addiction, which later morphed into full-blown heroin use, she said. She became estranged from her husband and young daughter. Thanksgivings were spent like any other day: high on drugs, away from family, not grateful for anything.
But on Wednesday, six months into an addiction treatment program at the Lighthouse for Women & Children, Wise celebrated the holiday drug-free at the Great Thanksgiving Banquet in Oxnard. The Ventura County Rescue Mission holds the banquet each year for people participating in the organization’s rehabilitation, housing and job-training programs, as well as for vulnerable community members including seniors, the homeless and the working poor.
Almost 1,000 people attended the banquet, most of them from the community. Among them were 250 volunteers, including local dignitaries, church groups and families, who served heaping plates of warm Thanksgiving food to those in need. The meals were provided free.
“It brings me to tears to see everybody here, serving one another,” Wise said. “It’s a blessing.”
The Ventura County Rescue Mission has held the Thanksgiving banquet for about a quarter century, said the organization’s director, John Saltee. Most of those who attend can’t afford a large Thanksgiving celebration themselves. Many don’t have homes, or lack family to spend the holidays with, he said.
Suzanne West, the mission’s community-relations coordinator, said the recent fires and mass shooting in Thousand Oaks have added to the stress people feel. That made this year’s banquet especially important, she said. Poor people are already dealing with a huge amount of strain in their lives, and don’t have the means or the time to unwind, she explained.
Preparing the Thanksgiving banquet takes about a week, said chef Richard Varble. He and 14 trainee cooks prepared 320 turkeys, 160 gallons of fresh-made gravy and 250 pounds of mashed potatoes for Wednesday’s meal. A donor added an Asian flair to the spread by bringing in teriyaki chicken, kobe beef and sushi.
Volunteers included Oxnard Mayor Tim Flynn, Oxnard Police Chief Scott Whitney, Ventura County Executive Officer Michael Powers and members of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.
Angel Perez, 21, volunteered with his two brothers, his mom and a close friend. He’s currently serving in the Air Force in Kansas, but is back in his hometown of Oxnard for the week, he said. Perez described growing up poor as a kid, and said he wanted to give back to his community now that he is in better financial shape.
“I feel like, coming up, you should try to help other people come up, too,” he said. “You come back and see where you’re from and you just feel good about yourself helping people.”