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Skid Row Volunteer's Gloom Turns To

Joy As The Help Pours In

 Los Angeles Times - February 17, 1990

By Tracy Kaplan - Times Staff Writer

Touched by the story of Ray Castellani, the man whose efforts to feed the homeless were jeopardized when his truck was stolen this week, a radio station Friday presented him with a brand new pickup and others offered everything from imported gourmet coffees to free gasoline.

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The outpuring of support overwhelmed Castellani, who had used his white truck to transport meals and serve them up to the homeless on Skid Row three times a week for the last two years - until it was stolen Wednesday in Sherman Oaks.

"This is awesome. I'm overpowered by the love people have shown," Castellani said, his eyes filling with tears 'when he learned of the offers. "When I lost that truck, I lost hope. I thought it was a sign that I should stop what I was doing."

"Instead, it's a miracle," he said.

Offers of assistance began pouring in when radio disc jockey Ken Cooper read Castellani's story in The Times and detailed his plight over the air on country music station KZLA-FM.

"I've worked in New York, Chicago and Atlanta, and I've never seen anything like the generosity of people here," Cooper said.

Castellani, 56, had vowed after the theft to somehow deliver meals to the "smelly, pokey, dirty, beautiful boys" on Skid Row who depended on him to bring the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, baloney and hot dogs.

But the situation had looked bleak until the offers came pouring in. One man called and offered his used truck. Another had a camper shell he was willing to give. By 10 a.m., Castellani and his "boys" had also been promised a burglar alarm and a six-month supply of free gasoline.

Meanwhile, calls were coming from others who wanted to help. Ernest Lieblich, a Los Angeles resident who owns a coffee supply company, offered to buy Castellani a $4,000 camper shell so he could continue sleeping in his truck. Lieblich also threw in a free supply of gourmet coffees because, he said, "as long as the homeless are going to drink coffee, it might as well be good stuff."

"I was very moved by his story," said Lieblich, 75. "When somebody goes to that extent, sacrifices his whole life to help people, I think it's the least I can do."

Even famed hair stylist Vidal Sassoon stepped in with an offer to donate his oldest son's used pickup truck. Mayor Tom Bradley had his staff ask the Greater Los Angeles Motor Car Dealers Assn. to donate a vehicle, a request the organization was eagerly considering, said association spokesman Ron Ballanti.

"I was flabbergasted," said Castellani, who learned of the gifts while preparing sandwiches in the basement kitchen of the United Methodist Church in Sherman Oaks, which the Frontline Foundation he formed in 1987 uses as its headquarters.

Castellani also has received a job offer. Tom Wathen, chairman of Pinkerton Security, said Friday that if Castellani contacts him immediately, he will train him to be a uniformed security officer.

"I thought, 'What a wonderful thing he is doing,"' said Wathen, a Los Angeles resident. "We'll be happy to arrange for him to be interviewed quickly if he is interested in working for us."

As the day wore on, it turned out that the man with the used truck, whose full name the radio station did not note in the excitement, called back to say he was having trouble transferring the title. At that point, station manager Norman M. Epstein decided, "What the hell, let's just buy him a truck."

Soon Castellani was climbing into a new, $9,000 red pickup. "I'm going to drive it downtown," he said, "and just let everyone touch it - it's a piece of love."

Times Staff writer Linda Chong contributed to this article.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright 1990, Los Angeles Times