Rain or Shine, Union Station's Compassionate Volunteers Carry on with Thanksgiving Tradition Today

Today’s Dinner in the Park moves inside because of rain. It will be the first since the passing of former Union Station CEO Rabbi Marvin Gross.

Published : Thursday, November 28, 2019 | 5:53 AM

Photo by Ethan Teller

Although today’s Union Station Homeless Services Thanksgiving Dinner in the Park won’t actually be served in a park today, Gina Long will be there. Today marks her tenth anniversary of volunteering to serve those in need at the annual tradition.

She keeps coming back in large measure because of her mentor, Rabbi Marvin Gross. But today’s will be the first dinner in Long’s recollection that will be without the presence of Rabbi Gross, who passed away last month.

This year the dinner has been moved to the Pasadena Adult Center, 412 South Raymond Ave., because of rain.

“One thing that Marv said to me that made me keep coming back,” Long recalled “Every single person who can try to change the situation, whether they volunteer time, or whatever you can do to put energy towards the homeless people, it will help. Any little bit of time. Don’t feel like you’re working in vain and don’t ever give up.”

Long — whose title at Union Station is associate director of development and events — has worked with people on many levels during her life. She’s an admitted “people person,” and was a producer on “America’s Most Wanted,” helping to bring together families.

“I think the one thing my previous iterations have in common with my current life is I find it very rewarding to work with people who think they’re voices aren’t heard,” Long said.

Long started with Union Station as a volunteer for Dinner in the Park and became a regular. She started volunteering in the In-kind donation program, picking up donations from Target, from the super markets and from different organizations.

“Then I became a member of Masters of Taste Committee continued on that committee and the director of that event was being promoted and asked me if I was interested in applying for the position,” she said. “It was a good fit, I’d been working with the organization for a while, things that were part of the job that I would be taking over. I also had other experience in previous iterations of life.

But in all her work, there has been a common thread.

“The common thread through all the things I’ve done is working to support a community that speaks for themselves but nobody listens,” she said. “The vulnerable people who don’t get the opportunity to speak to people who can do something about their stories.

And that’s why Long — along with the rest of the community — loves Dinner in the Park.

“I’ve met a lot of people,” she said. “It’s the 49th year of Dinner in the Park in Pasadena’s Central Park and every year we have more than 500 volunteers serving 2000 meals and including everything.”

The words of Rabbi Gross come to mind continually for Long, but never had stronger sentiment than when she sees the community come together for Dinner in the Park.

“There is one woman named Mary who I have seen every year since I started working there at least eight years. She has experienced homelessness and has a small family and a little dog. She comes every year and a lot of times, she’s not that vocal.”

“So I usually when I see her I give her a big hug and say ‘Hi Mary,’ and I take her to the line because she’s older and she has a little struggle, and a struggle to get a plate. Sometimes it’s hard for her to figure out where is the beginning of the line or end of the line and I sit her down with a group that embraces her.

“She was struggling a lot last year, as she might have fibromyalgia and was having a difficult time. We took her to a table, sat her down to make sure she got food. She sits down and separates out her meal, cuts a portion and feeds her dog first and eats the Thanksgiving meal.

“That’s her friend and close companion and that’s the friend that’s walking life with her and she’s making sure that friend is taken care of,” Long said. “It’s so beautiful and moving to see her give the dog first. If I see her this year, I hope she recognizes me.

Long said it’s the personal connections during Dinner in the Park that make the difference.

“People in the community or those experiencing something they don’t want to share come together,” Long said. “They put themselves in the position to make connections. And people in the community aren’t necessarily homeless but they have a need to help. The Dinner in the Park provides something that gives them a feeling of contentment. Helping someone and the people get the opportunity to interact with people who treat them the same way they’d treat everyone else, who they wouldn’t normally get to interact with.

“This is a day where you can’t tell the difference between the volunteers, the people and those experiencing homelessness,” Long said. “When we take the labels away and put everyone in a big park together, you see people smiling and hugging and people who don’t have the opportunity to make friends making friends. You see people who came alone leaving together. They’re exceptional connections.”

She said a good amount of credit goes to the people who work at Union Station and the volunteers.

“Those work in this industry, at an organization that’s trying to prevent people from falling into a situation where they’re experiencing homelessness, they know this is important,” Long said. “The volunteers get a lot out of it and the people who are in need get a lot because they’re meeting people they don’t necessarily have an opportunity to sit and talk with, and just talk. T hey’re usually talking to these kinds of people because they’re trying to get a voucher. This is a special experience for them to put aside and it’s beautiful to watch. It’s beautiful to be a part of it.”

Homelessness is not a condition, Long said. Many more people that we may believe are not far from homelessness, she said.

“It starts where you are in a position where you can’t afford rent,” she said. “Once you get evicted you’re either using your money to keep your car and your telephone. Almost anyone in our world can experience this. When people say “the homeless,” it’s wrong. This is something that happens to everyday people. As a society we need to find a way to make more affordable housing available for people. And community events like Dinner in the Park is where these issues come to the forefront. Decision-makers and those who are having decisions made about them sit down together.”

The numbers of homeless may be on the decline but it is a slow process, Long said.

“Marv Gross who created the Union Station Homeless Station said there should be no one on this earth who should experience homelessness,” Long said. “To me this year is in his honor because this will be the first Thanksgiving since his passing. I’s important for us to remember the people who have authority to make these decisions to recognize they’re part of the same community as the people who are having the decisions foisted on them. If I were honoring anyone it would be Marv Gross.

“I remember hearing him say that, and I remember thinking that the situation can get better,” Long said. “He said, always keep in mind progress toward perfection, it’s more important that the final perfect fix. Every moment moves you towards the end result. He taught me to respect progress over perfection.”

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