Where to Gobble Down a Free Thanksgiving Meal in Ventura County

(Photo: JUAN CARLO/THE STAR)
Posted in the Ventura County Star – November 17, 2017
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The chefs and the men in the mission’s culinary arts program start cooking the turkeys more than a week ahead of time, according to John Saltee, director of the mission. That way, the birds are ready to be carved up and dished out to about 900 people who will enjoy the full holiday meal from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday.

The meals are served on decorated tables set out along a closed-off alleyway behind the mission, as well as at other locations affiliated with the mission.

The kitchen staff also prepares 900 pounds of potatoes, 65 gallons of gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, peas, corn, dinner rolls and 80 pies for dessert.

All of that food must be prepared in addition to the regular free, hot meals the Rescue Mission offers daily.

Saltee said it’s all part of helping men return to productive lives after various missteps. Homeless women and children are served through the Lighthouse for Women and Children program.

“When men come into the Ventura County Rescue Mission, we ask them for 10 months in our drug and alcohol recovery vocational training,” Saltee said. “We offer educational services, including tutoring, money management, anger management, computer training and many other programs. We help them find a job and get a job. We offer that same programming to women who can move into transitional living for up to two years.”

The mission’s Thanksgiving meal always attracts so many volunteers that people have to be turned away, but volunteers are still needed for other upcoming holiday events, said Suzanne West, community relations coordinator.

“The Christmas toy giveaway event is on Dec. 16, and we need volunteers,” she said. “We also need new, unwrapped toys because we’ll be giving out more than 1,600 toys. Schools, businesses, churches or neighborhoods should consider a toy drive.”

Seeing people emerge from the recovery program to become productive and self-sustaining is the best part of working at the mission, Saltee said.

“We have a graduation rate of about 75 percent,” he said. “There is absolutely no greater joy than watching somebody who comes in so hopeless discover they’re a useful human being and they have hope for the future.”

While the mission offers faith-based programming, Saltee said religious affiliation isn’t a requirement.

“Most people who come in aren’t Christian,“ he said. “You don’t have to be a Christian to graduate. We feel being a Christian will broaden their experience. But we’ve had successful graduates who’ve never become Christian and who’ve gone on to get hold of their life.”

Saltee said that addiction issues are prevalent among those who enter the mission’s programs.

“Some of them are so messed up,” he said. “They’re confused and lost. They need a fresh start. They can’t do it by themselves.”

Saltee and West said the annual Thanksgiving feast, which attracts many of the top lawmakers and officials from the community to dish out the food, is a cherished 18-year tradition.

“It’s such a delight see all of those people,” West said. “We have volunteers come alongside the residents and people from the community. They’re so excited to be able to serve. And the people coming are so excited to see the Thanksgiving meal. You see individuals and community leaders come together. It doesn’t matter about their politics, religion, whatever. The energy is the best.”