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A Long Walk From Skid Row

To The White House

Honors: Tarzana man who once lived on the streets receives President's Service Award for feeding the homeless

Los Angeles Times, April 28, 1995

by Mark Lacey, Times Staff Writer

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WASHINGTON—The rules at the White House are straightforward: Homeless people must stay in the park across the street. Only invited dignitaries can enter the iron gates to the White House grounds.

On Thursday, Ray Castellani of Tarzana turned all that upside-down.

A homeless advocate who once lived on the streets, Castellani was honored at a Rose Garden ceremony with a President's Service Award, considered the nation's highest volunteer award. He shook hands with President Clinton and was heralded for founding an organization that has served 450,000 meals on Los Angeles' Skid Row.

"This may be the greatest moment of my life," said Castellani, his voice full of emotion and his eyes full of tears. "It's just a humbling experience."

Dressed in a dark, pin-striped suit, standing in a place usually taken by heads of state, Castellani could not help but think back to less glorious moments— when he drifted from city to city, living on the streets and looking forward to nothing except his next drink.

"It's a long walk from Skid Row to the White House," he said.

It was only when his life hit rock bottom that Castellani turned himself around. The former actor gave up alcohol and, in 1987, began helping those still on the streets. His San Fernando Valley-based Frontline Foundation has grown from a one-man operation that doled out peanut butter sandwiches to a 150-member volunteer campaign to feed the hungry.

"I am not out to change them or to save them," Castellani said. "I just want to give them something to eat."

The foundation—funded by donations—has teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. A few years back, Castellani was ready to hang it all up. But the group, operating on a shoestring budget, has managed to survive.

For his efforts, Castellani doesn't get a dime. That would take away from the food money, he said.

Castellani was one of 18 honorees. Clinton called them "ordinary Americans doing extraordinary things . . . teachers and homemakers, carpenters and business leaders, people from small neighborhood organizations and large corporations."

There was a Nebraska man who helps women in abusive relationships move into a safe place. A Florida woman whose health clinic treats 680 migrant workers a month. A teacher who promotes nonviolence in North Carolina schools.

And then the loudspeaker boomed Ray Castellani's name.

He strode onto the stage and pumped the President's hand, looking a bit awkward to be in such a place. All the while, he said, he was thinking about those just like him who could never get past White House security.

"This is not just on behalf of me," he said. "It's for all the volunteers and all the people of Skid Row. A piece of them was at the White House today. That's what I am, a piece of them, a piece of the people on the street."

As he stood on the inside, with tourists actually gawking through the gates at him, Castellani gazed across the street toward Lafayette Park, where homeless people sleep on benches, their possessions at their sides.

"They must see me walking around in this suit and wonder, 'Who is this guy?' " Castellani said, his wrinkled face wrinkled even more.

"They don't know that I'm one of them. They don't know that when I see my brother or my sister lying in the street, or hurting in the street, a part of me hurts."