Merced Rescue Mission serves up food, friendship on Thanksgiving

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comNovember 28, 2013 

— While some families were preparing their holiday meals or perhaps going over their shopping plans for Black Friday sales, many shared in a community meal Thursday at the American Legion Hall in Merced.

Gary Gonzales, 47, said he wouldn’t be seeing any family on the holiday, so he was one of dozens of people at the community meal offered by the Merced Rescue Mission.

Gonzales said he’s lived at the D Street homeless shelter for about a year and his family is too far away to visit. He’d never been to the annual meal before Thursday.

“This is my first time here. I’ve been trying to come but always got held up somewhere,” he said.

He sat in a folding chair eating his Thanksgiving turkey – his favorite part – with mashed potatoes, pie and other fixings, using his new set of teeth. Gonzales said he was a methamphetamine and heroin addict for years.

He’s clean now and, with a fresh set of dentures, he’s working on getting a driver’s license – something that could go a long way toward getting back on his feet.

“This is great,” he said, looking around at a room of people eating turkey. “It brings the people together here – you have friends and families.”

In a corner of the room were Jordan Aneisley and Ryan Heisley, two 30-year-olds who met at the Rescue Mission a few days before the Thanksgiving meal.

Heisley, who grew up in Merced, said that until recently he was staying with some friends while he looked for work. But the situation there changed, Heisley said, and it became time move on.

“There was no room left for me, so I had to go,” he said.

Heisley said he didn’t have any family to fall back on because his mentally disabled father is living with him at the mission.

Aneisley said he ended up in Merced over the weekend, when he was kicked off a train for smoking. Originally from Fullerton, Aneisley said he doesn’t have the resources to complete his trip to Chico. “I’m kind of stuck in limbo,” he said.

The men said the mission gave them a place to share food and fellowship with one another.

“We’re kind of in the same situation,” Aneisley said, gesturing at Heisley. “So, we’re getting along cool.”

Some diners Thursday sat alone and enjoyed a plate piled with food, while others laughed and smiled over pie with friends, and still others ate with children and loved ones.

The Rev. Prapai Wanlarbkam, the mission’s director of Christian services, said many of the people in the room had fallen on hard times. As the economy has slumped, more and more have come to the shelter for food.

He said he is always encouraged to the see the volunteers, many of whom once came to eat and now come back to help serve. He also finds the way the community donates the bounty of food encouraging.

“What’s surprising is the willingness of the community to help,” Wanlarbkam said. “Every year it gets better and better.”

The mission, which was short on holiday donations two weeks ago, got everything it needed for the Thanksgiving feast, he said.

The line for food stretched from outside the mission to O Street. The food is served in shifts to accommodate the throng of hungry people. More than 2,000 show every year, according to organizers.

John Laymen, 58, stood in line with a friend, 39-year-old Leticia Gomez. Laymen said he lives on street and the mission is his “only shot” at a holiday meal with his comrades.

“If I would have missed this meal, I would have been hungry again tonight, looking for Top Ramen or something,” he said.

Laymen and Gomez said they aren’t relatives, but they’ve know each other so long that they might as well be. Laymen said he looks forward to this time of year.

“We know everybody (here),” Laymen said, with a laugh. “We go in, say ‘Hi, how you doing?’ – maybe dance a little.”

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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