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Ex-Skid Row Resident's Foundation Dishes Up Its 500,000th Meal

Los Angeles Times, March 16, 1996

By Efrain Hernandez, Jr.


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Without fanfare, Ray Castellani's Frontline Foundation will deliver meal number 500,000 today to the homeless of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.

The milestone represents the power of human caring and volunteerism, Castellani said Wednesday. "It's not just the food," said the 63-year-old former Skid Row resident, whose nonprofit food kitchen is based in Van Nuys, "It's the understanding, the compassion."

Known by most of those he helps simply as Ray, Castellani seemed energized after an hour of passing out
more than 150 free bag lunches in some of the city's roughest, most drug-infested areas.

At one stop on Seaton Street, near East 5th and Palmetto streets, several homeless men hustled toward the foundation's white pickup truck. Each man grabbed a brown paper bag containing a tuna fish sandwich and a snack.

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"We love this guy," said a 58-year-old local resident known as Mississippi Slim. "There's nobody better."

The combination of providing meals, spending a few minutes with some of those he calls brothers and sisters, and reflecting on the efforts of the many volunteers who help the kitchen filled Castellani with joy.

"I'm humbled," he said, struggling to find the right words. "Five hundred thousand meals is a lot of meals. I've done what I'm supposed to do."

The kitchen, which Castellani started in December 1987, has come a long way since he nearly closed it during the summer of 1993 because donations were drying up.

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Last year, President Clinton honored Castellani with the President's Service Award, which is considered the nation's highest award for volunteers. Today the foundation, which operates six days a week solely through private donations and volunteerism, is healthier than ever. Castellani said an upsurge in donations and volunteers has enabled the charity to provide more than 60,000 meals a year at an annual cost of about $40,000, he said.

More could be done, Castellani said. Ideally, the foundation would hire one or two staff members and double its production to about 120,000 meals each year, he said.

While the vision is Castellani's, its fulfillment may be beyond his power. He said he may soon end his active role with the foundation. Heart troubles and fatigue may prevent him from continuing his 60 to 70-hour workweeks too much longer, Castellani said.

"It's really a lot for me right now," he said. "I can feel the strength draining from me."

But Noreen Castellani, 27, who married Ray 3 1/2 years ago, said his energy is the driving force behind the foundation's success. It is contagious and attracts volunteers, she said. Volunteers Richard Gayler, 34, of Hollywood, and Laila Bowden, 27, of Santa Monica, agreed. "He's just a guy who's so pure," Gayler, said. "He has good morals and it's really hard to find somebody like that. The people just love him."

On the streets, Castellani is accepted as someone who tries to help without being judgmental, preachy or petty. "What makes him the greatest is he'll come out here rain, shine, whatever," said Mississippi Slim. "I've never seen him show any partiality or racism."

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Frank Bridges, who lives under a bridge along 6th Street near Santa Fe Avenue, hugged Castellani tightly before taking a meal. "He gives us an opportunity to feel like we have a home," said Bridges, 34. "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Somebody cares."

For Darnetta Thomas, 36, who lives in a tent on 5th Street, Castellani is different from others who help because he treats people as individuals rather than stereotypes. "Ray's a real person," she said. "There's nothing plastic about him."

Castellani said his intention has always been to offer warmth to those struggling in the devastation that is Skid Row. "My only goal is to help humanity in some little way," he said.

Copyright, 1996. Reprinted with permission