Dinner on Us does more than feed the homeless. It pampers them with feasts that celebrate international cuisine — and nourish the spirit
Juicy, tender roast ham. Mashed potatoes. Tossed green salad. Deviled eggs. Peas and carrots. Steaming fried rice. Fruit salad. Chocolate-covered strawberries. And pink sugar cookies, too.
It takes more than 40 volunteers to dish out this feast for nearly 900 men and women who march through the Las Vegas Rescue Mission on the day before Easter. Though they’re getting great food (the buzz today is about the succulent ham and fluffy, flavorful fried rice), this is no mere bread line: Witness the live hymns, the handmade decorations adorning the walls, the little girls in their Easter best handing out plastic eggs filled with chocolate.
This is Dinner on Us, the brainchild of Giovanna Raccosta, an advocate with an eye for detail. And a taste for good food. Born into a Sicilian household where her family pressed their own olive oil (“A lot of the stuff they sell here in the U.S., we called machine oil,” she jokes), Raccosta throws a good party. Dinner on Us’s goal is not to just serve food to the homeless and recovering, but to create memorable events that feed the spirit and fill the belly — with home-cooked dishes, flowers on the tables and live entertainment. (Everyone’s still buzzing about last month’s tango dancers.) Celebration, quality of experience, and love is what drives Dinner on Us. “They can get food every day. Who cares? We give love through food. That is the difference,” says Raccosta.
The Rescue Mission provides hot meals every night, but tight budgets keep them from serving the fine cuisine Dinner on Us brings. “We have fresh herbs. We are not going to buy dried basil,” Raccosta quips, dismissing the idea of a dried herb with a gesture that would send most homemakers to hide their spice rack in shame.
Kym Tso, a Dinner on Us volunteer and donor, says, “These residents get to see what we see every day at restaurants.”
“When you are (homeless),” says one diner, “anything that is a little better than normal is good.”
In need of rescue
Just east of where the freeway overpass swallows Bonanza Road sits the 12-building Las Vegas Rescue Mission complex, which offers addiction support, shelter and emergency supplies to the needy. The organization’s thrift store opens onto the street, but a large fence surrounds the rest of the evangelically based mission. Visitors — both those with housing and those without — must pass through security to enter. The organization runs on volunteers. Up to 300 people pour into the facilities each week to offer assistance.
“When acceptance (of street life) sets in, you are toast,” says Matthew Quinn. He’s clean cut, average-looking. No one who would stand out in a crowd. Almost 36, Quinn has already had a lot of life: a wife and kids, jobs in high-end restaurants, addictions, divorce, criminal activity, recovery and, for the past year, the post of general kitchen manager at the Las Vegas Rescue Mission.
Quinn holds up a framed photo. The man in the picture is dirty. His hair and beard hang long and scrubby. “That was me when I came here. On the street, I had a lack of hope. You are in a hole and you are looking up and you try to climb out but you fall back in the hole.” And then, after a while, the acceptance sets in.
In November of 2011, Quinn decided to stop using and ended up at the Las Vegas Rescue Mission’s 12-month residential addiction recovery program. After graduation, he decided to stay on as the kitchen manager, and he now supervises a team of recovery program participants that staff the kitchen 22 hours a day and serve 30,000 meals a month to the homeless. These meals, while not gourmet, offer a bit of hope to people whose pasts mirror Quinn’s: bad choices, addictions, money problems, criminal records. People who could use a little support.
Monthly, Dinner on Us arrives and breaks up the hum-drum of the kitchen’s work. It’s extravagant and classy, a little over-the-top — and, in its own way, completely necessary.
“It is energizing and inspiring,” says Rescue Mission Director of Development John Fogal. “It encourages residents to feel like they matter. It brings the outside world into this place where (residents in the recovery program) stay for a year. It reminds people of the goal of what they are working towards. It provides tools of interaction.”
While the monthly event centers on food, the creation story behind Dinner on Us has spiritual roots.
“I woke up one night with a calling from God to feed the homeless,” says Raccosta. “I got up and by morning, everything was ready to send out — Facebook messages. A vision.” That was last September, and a few weeks later the first dinner went up. Italian, of course.
Since that night, Raccosta has tended the group and helped it grow. Through Facebook, word of mouth and newspapers volunteers, cash and food donations make their way to Raccosta. What began as an event focused on the residents of the Rescue Mission’s recovery program quickly grew to feed the overnight shelter residents and other people coming by for an evening meal. Each month sees the Dinner on Us crew virtually trotting to another part of the globe for culinary inspiration: Asia, Mexico, Iran ...
Many of the volunteers come from strong religious backgrounds and Raccosta herself is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She feels that, while Dinner on Us is inspired by God, that does not impact whom she wants to assist.
“We don’t need to ask what they believe. If they read the Bible. If they drink or smoke. None of that matters,” she says.
Food for thought
The Rescue Mission residents all agree that the grub is a cut above; standard fare for dinner at the mission is soup and sandwiches. Kacie, 23, pretty and poised, has been in and out of rehabs for several years. And she knows food. Her father owned an Italian deli.
“After the Italian meal (from Dinner on Us), I called my dad and said, ‘I found someone who can cook as good as you.’” Such reminders of home mean a lot to people isolated at the mission and working hard to make a “regular life” for themselves.
The people giving their time to Dinner on Us get as much out of the experience as the people they serve. The majority of the volunteers are housewives. Before she heads off to hand out toothbrushes, volunteer Hanna Carson, mother of three, talks about how proud her family is of her work. She’s been with the group since the beginning. Then she looks around at the other volunteers. “Sometimes you need some adult conversation.”
Kym Tso agrees. “We are getting together and meeting other people. I am networking with other moms.”
While this networking might lead to more philanthropic acts, it is definitely also building a community among these women. And, as they intend to help the homeless, they are also helping themselves. “Everyone can give something. Someone can chop potatoes. Someone has a nice smile. Then you feel useful and alive, feel your value,” says Raccosta.
She says Dinner on Us gave her a reason to stay in Vegas, a meaning for her life. “I wanted to leave Las Vegas because I had nothing. We women are finding a reason to be here and enjoying ourselves. We are busy and learning and having fun. Now I don’t want to go. Why would I? When you are at Dinner on Us, you could be anywhere, but you feel the energy and the love.”
A new course
That energy and love seems to be building. Tso is considering a career that involves assisting the community. Fogal says that Dinner on Us volunteers have come looking for other ways to support the Rescue Mission.
And here, in the kitchen, Cathy Shultz ministers the deviled eggs. Most of her previous service has centered on members of her church: bringing food to families with a new baby or who are grieving the death of a loved one. She looks down the line of men and women waiting to eat and says, “This is the first time I worked with the homeless. They are not like I thought. They are clean and courteous and sober.” Shultz represents the important little changes Dinner on Us has wrought.
For his part, Rescue Mission General Kitchen Manager Quinn benefits from Dinner on Us, too.
“This event helps me. I know I’m just one mistake from where I was, and it’s a help to see people giving their time freely.” It reminds him of why he’s stayed on to work at the Rescue Mission — and why he is staying sober. Around the dining room, circles of friends and acquaintances eat together. But there are also men and women alone with their trays of food. Quinn says, “When I was homeless, towards the end, I yearned for someone to talk to me. To treat me normal. It was rare and it was special and my day got a little bit better.”
Raccosta and Dinner on Us hope to make a lot of people’s days better, one monthly meal at a time. But that committed sense of mission is always lightened by a sense of joy and play at the heart of the organization. Next month? It’s a Hawaiian luau — complete with coconuts, orchids and an entire pig.