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Man Who Feeds Homeless Wins Award

Daily News - April 22, 1995

By Marni McEntee

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As Ray Castellani steers his white Ford pickup onto downtown's 5th Street, a seedy artery leading into the ailing heart of Skid Row, shouts echo up from the sidewalk.

"Ray! Hey, Ray!" two men yell, hailing the man known on a first-name basis by just about everyone who lives on the Row.

Castellani has earned that recognition after nearly eight years of food deliveries for Frontline Foundation, the Van Nuys-based organization he founded in 1987 to help the homeless.

Next week, he will get a different kind of recognition when he receives the highest award for volunteer service in the country: the 1995 President's Service Award.

He and his wife, Noreen, will leave for Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. President Clinton will present the award in the Rose Garden on Thursday to Castellani and 17 other individuals and organizations.

"It's unbelievable to me to go from the point of downtown Los Angeles and the depths of despair to meet the head man in the country. It's a long walk," Castellani, 62, said.

If not a meteoric rise to fame, Castellani's path to presidential recognition is certainly one beaten with perseverance.

A former character actor whose furrowed features found him cast most often as the bad guy in Westerns, Castellani himself was periodically homeless and living on Skid Row in the late 1970s after he lost his career to alcoholism.

It took a decade before he took the steps to his own recovery, and made the decision to come back to help those who had helped him get a handle on his own life.

The Frontline Foundation got its start in December 1987 when Castellani served 111 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a pot of coffee at 5th and San Pedro streets.

Castellani figures Frontline has served 450,000 meals since that winter day on an annual budget of $60,000 a year. Seven days a week, 150 volunteers, including 80 donors known as the Frontline 80, keep his kitchen doors open.

"There are so many struggles that no one knows about," said Noreen Castellani. "We go about our lives feeding people, but it hasn't always been easy." The two share a modest North Hollywood apartment living mostly on Noreen's salary as a substitute teacher.

The award is just gravy, Ray Castellani said.

"The energy and power that we've generated among the people downtown has been reciprocated. It's a miracle. Even though we are talking about a sector of life that is in despair, they care. They cared about me when I got sick. They care. They care," Castellani said.

It is caring that most impressed the judges who chose Castellani from among 3,000 nominations around the country, said Richard Mock, spokesman for the Points of Light Foundation, which manages the award.

"This is someone who started something in 1987 and got wrapped up in it and has continued to this day," Mock said.

That's the word on the streets, too.

"Ray cares," said a woman who would identify herself only as Joanie. "He takes the time to talk to this one and that one."

Paul Johnson, 36, who helps Castellani distribute the food, nods his head. "He's an institution."

Mock said the judges also admired Castellani's ability to stick to feeding the homeless, despite some criticism by other homeless organizations that people on the street have a greater need for other services.

But Castellani has remained firm in his belief that food comes first.

"He's been very up front about those differences of opinion and why he feels that way," Mock said.

The national service award program was started in 1982 under President Reagan. Including this year's winners, there have been 266 recipients.

Castellani, who is undergoing heart therapy for severe artery blockages at the Veterans Administration hospital, is unsure what will happen to the Frontline Foundation when he is no longer at the helm.

"When it comes to closing, if the cupboard is bare, then we die. My thing is going to the corner where we're going today. My thing is Skid Row."