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
WASHINGTONThe 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 foundationfunded by donationshas 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
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."