Sunday, Dec. 25, 2011 | 4:40 p.m.
For the hundreds of homeless patrons at this soup kitchen near downtown Las Vegas, Juan Carlos Penate might as well be Santa Claus.
Working through the night, the burly executive chef and his staff cooked up a hearty meal for about 1,500 people who gathered at the Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada on Christmas Day.
The line of families and veterans snaked out the door and around the corner Sunday morning as Penate put the finishing touches on his Christmas gifts: Pineapple sauce drizzled over juicy pork tenderloins and shrimp, steaming mashed potatoes and vegetables and a sweet crème brulee custard.
“It’s rewarding to feed those less fortunate,” said Penate, who used to work at several Strip restaurants before coming to the Catholic Charities soup kitchen two years ago. “This is what Christmas is about.”
Catholic Charities has been serving traditional Christmas dinners to those in need in Las Vegas since the 1940s. However, since the Great Recession caused Las Vegas to top the bankruptcy, foreclosure and unemployment rate charts, the demand for the group’s services has skyrocketed.
“We’re finding that people have exhausted all their resources, savings, 401(k) plans and unemployment benefits,” said Executive Director Patrick Leary. “This dinner gives us a chance to show that people care. It makes a big difference.”
Last year, the charity served about 1,120 people at its annual Christmas dinner. This year, they prepared for upward of 1,700 people.
The kitchen purchased 900 pounds of pork tenderloin, 1,400 pounds of potatoes, 900 pounds of vegetables and 50 gallons of pineapple sauce. The Blue Oasis shrimp farm in North Las Vegas donated about 3,000 shrimp for the meals, said Pat Falvey, the nonprofit’s vice president for development.
In recent years, the nonprofit has begun to rely less on grants and more on private donations to help fund the Christmas dinner. The charity serves pasta and stew at its soup kitchen every day and serves seniors with its Meals on Wheels program.
“It’s hard but this community is very giving,” Falvey said. “They realize the need in the community. We can’t do this without public support.”
About 300 volunteers showed up Christmas morning to help serve dinner. Among them were Rep. Joe Heck, his wife Lisa and three children.
“I felt it was important for my kids, as protected as they are, to see that there are people in the valley hurting and the importance of helping them,” said Heck, who said he has volunteered at the charity’s Thanksgiving and fundraiser events in the past.
Working alongside the congressman’s family were Jonathan and Delia Ocate, regular volunteers who brought 24 family members and friends to help out on Christmas.
“We wanted to give the gift of time,” Jonathan said. “It’s not all about the material things, but relationships with other people.”
Homeless families may be surrounded at this time of year by symbols of the things they lack: a roof and dinner with family. That’s why Larry Delaney said he was thankful for the Catholic Charities’ annual Christmas dinner.
The 48-year-old limousine dispatcher and his family moved two months ago from Denver for a new start. He had lost his previous job in the industry after he suffered heart problems, he said.
Delaney had just $300 when he arrived, but with three boys and his wife, the money was quickly exhausted. The family spent two nights in their car before seeking help from Catholic Charities and The Shade Tree shelter across the street.
The Christmas dinner was a rare chance for the entire family to sit together for a meal. Delaney lives at the Catholic Charities shelter. His wife and children live at The Shade Tree.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a meal like this,” Delaney said, who recently found a job working for a local limo company. “We have a chance to be together. God is blessing us.”
Across the room at another table, Lashone Ferguson and her two children enjoyed their Christmas meal. Ferguson had many things to be thankful for this holiday: Her son was given toys and clothes from Hyde Park Middle School and her daughter got to meet with Santa Claus at the soup kitchen.
All Ferguson wants this Christmas is a job however. The 43-year-old said she lost her former retail job after she suffered a car accident in September.
“I hope I’m working and have a one bedroom or two bedroom apartment,” she said listing off her goals for the New Year. “I hope next year, I’m back here volunteering with my kids. Everyone has been very giving. I’m so grateful.”