Town rallies behind Rescue Mission to feed thousands on Thanksgiving


MERCED, CA — Merced, California, is a city with problems. With a population of more than 80,000, the majority Hispanic, the city's longtime reputation as "the gateway to Yosemite" has been replaced with the unofficial moniker "Foreclosure Capital of America."

Home to California's newest major university campus and only two hours from the San Francisco Bay area, it became the target of land speculators — many "absentee landlords" based in San Francisco and San Jose. The rush for land, particularly because of the coming of the new college, drove the value of land and existing houses to unrealistic levels.

When the home value bubble burst about two years ago, some homes depreciated by nearly two-thirds in months. All this happened as many mortgage rates for homeowners readjusted, some dramatically. The result: A trickle of foreclosures became a steady stream and finally a torrent.

With "For Sale" signs on nearly every block, major department stores began to close. There were damning articles about the local crisis in national publications (including the Wall Street Journal). Merced County and the region became the "poster boy" for the home ownership collapse. Suddenly middle class families found themselves seeking Food Stamps and showing up at charities.

Traditionally, the image of "the homeless" changed from out-of-work men asking for a handout to women with children begging for basic necessities. The average former income levels of those needing assistance began to rise. Many of the middle class families seeking assistance found themselves without the psychological tools to deal with sudden poverty.

Seeing all of this develop in just a two-year period was a diminutive former Rabbi-turned Christian minister who had taken over the county's Rescue Mission after moving west. Rev. Herbert Opalek grew up in New York City. In his initial role of rabbi in New York City, he worked with that city's poor, comforted prisoners and was appointed to several civil rights groups.

After taking on the role of a Christian minister, he brought his "street smarts" to Merced. His initial task was the dispel the "flop house" image of Rescue Missions. "We are here to rehabilitate and to send those in distress on to productive lives," he once told local media. Opalek's New York-style attitude and frankness gave him a great deal of authority when he insisted upon discipline, Gospel study, adherence to mission house rules and attendance at study classes at his facility.

He began working closely with other Merced-area charities, including the Salvation Army, the local food banks and Catholic Charities. He called upon the expertise of other missions that are a part of the nationwide Association of Gospel Rescue Missions.

In taking over the local Rescue Mission, Opalek inherited a daunting yearly task, organizing a huge Thanksgiving meal, served at the local expansive American Legion hall. In the months before this Thanksgiving, and well aware of the growing economic problems of the region, Opalek began hearing growing fears that the number of people who would show up for Thanksgiving dinner would break all records.

Last year, with the help of other charities, backed fully by local media, the Rescue Mission fed nearly 3,000 people. Opalek told his board of directors that Thanksgiving 2008 was not only going to be a budget buster but a more difficult task because contributions were drying up just as the need was going.

"We WILL not fail this year," Opalek noted. A local radio station ran a nearly hourly appeal for turkeys. In one public service announcement a local radio personality asked the question: "What would you do if there were rumors that as many as 5,000 people might show up on your doorstep for Thanksgiving dinner?" In spite of the radio spots and personal contacts, the number of turkeys donated was a mere 60 with just a week to go. Opalek knew he needed at least 250 to do a proper job and not turn away any of the hungry.

Then, at the last minute, an executive from an area poultry processor heard the radio appeal and called the Rescue Mission, offering hundreds of turkeys to help the cause. The gift not only guaranteed a successful Thanksgiving dinner, but will allow Opalek to help local food-giving charities across Christmas and into early 2009.

Although the number of turkeys donated by local citizens might have been lower than hoped, the outpouring of volunteers to help serve was nothing shy of amazing. Entire families showed up, often bringing visiting out-of-town friends or family members. All put on latex gloves prior to serving up the usual Thanksgiving fare.

Opalek held a short rally before the doors were open to the public. He stressed his gratitude and, with his comments translated paragraph-by-paragraph into Spanish by a co-worker, he told the volunteers that they all were important. "When you're not serving food," he noted, "I want you talking to everyone who comes in, making them welcome. For many this will not only be the one day a year they get a decent meal, it will be the one day in which they are treated like human beings."

Not only were all those entering the hall treated well, they were greeted by a 40-feet-wide series of tables covered with warm clothing for the taking. In one corner of the dining hall a group of Mennonites sang hymns. Visitors were escorted to long decorated tables, after going thru the serving line that ended in the "dessert zone" where paper plates of sliced pie and cake completely covered the floor of the building's theater stage.

The line outside initially nearly stretched around two city blocks. More than three hours after the serving started, the last homeless person was seated. When the numbers were added up, 4,100 people had gone through the line.

It's not unusual for four to five thousand people to be served in larger cities, but for Merced, a city smack dab in the middle of the state's rural, agricultural San Joaquin Valley, the number is rather amazing.

In the national scheme of things, Merced is not unique when it comes to increased need balanced against dwindling contributions. As the economy flags, more and more people need assistance and fewer and fewer have the luxury of helping. But, the local Rescue Mission and its partner agencies have proven that citizens can be rallied, that every little bit helps. And whether it's a large company coming to the rescue at the last minute or a family just volunteering time, the spirit of giving is alive and well ... even when the only contribution made is concern, moral support and a measure of time.