Culver City Observer -

By Sandra Coopersmith
Features Reporter 

DINING WITH DIGNITY DURING DIFFICULT TIMES

 

Lisa Skelley, far left in photo, and volunteers serving a diner

When it comes to feeding body AND soul, Grace Diner (https://gracediner.org/) is the place to be and its Program Director, Lisa Skelley, is your go-to person.

On Monday, June 13, at a special Culver City Council presentation, Skelley and Grace Diner received the first ever Equity and Human Relations Advisory Committee (EHRAC) 2021 awards as, respectively, deserving individual and deserving nonprofit. Established in 2020, EHRAC is an advisory body to the City Council and/or the City Manager with duties that include recommending programs, policies, and activities that promote positive human relations and equitable outcomes and opportunities in all aspects of community life.

"I'm so pleased that Lisa Skelley and Grace Diner won the first annual Equity and Human Relations Awards," said Rebecca Rona-Tuttle, EHRAC's chair. "What deserving recipients! I'm also very proud of our Community Contributions Subcommittee for all the effort that led to these awards. Members of the public can already submit nominations for the 2022 awards by locating the committee's web page at http://www.culvercity.org."

She noted that "this has been a time of 'firsts' for the Equity and Human Relations Advisory Committee, which was appointed two years ago by the City Council. In addition to these meaningful awards, we organized the committee's first public Understanding Hate Crimes presentation and discussion, Indigenous People's Day Celebration, Transgender Day of Remembrance Commemoration, Civil Discourse Workshop, Asian-American Storytelling event, and the storytelling portion of the city's recent Juneteenth Celebration."

Rona-Tuttle encouraged the public to provide input on the draft Civil Discourse Guidelines being circulated now and to attend the upcoming EHRAC meeting on Tuesday, July 26, at 7 p.m. in the Patacchia meeting room in City Hall. One can also sign up for meeting alerts by going to http://www.culvercity.org and typing EHRAC in the search area to reach its web page.

The two awards, in the form of striking medallions, were presented to Kelley by Anissa DiVincente of EHRAC, who headed the awards subcommittee and lauds Skelley and Grace Diner for their "dedication and instrumental service to the Culver City community. Though our Community Contributions Subcommittee didn't receive any qualifying nominations for two of our four award categories, the student and business award categories, we were very pleased with the overall number of submissions we received from our first call for nominations. We are excited to see how this award program grows in the future, and are hopeful we receive even more submissions for the 2022 award nominations."

The two inaugural awardees are indeed noteworthy.

Grace Diner, a nonprofit 501(c) (3) organization, began in 2009 as a part of the ministry of Grace Lutheran Church, 4427 Overland Ave., Culver City, CA 90230. Skelley started volunteering as a waitress when the Diner was founded, quickly progressed to managing the weekly sit-down restaurant-style Diner and, within two years, became its official Program Director and a member of its Executive Board.

"Being of service and helping those experiencing misfortune in their lives is important to me and my sense of responsibility toward my fellow humans," she said. "I've worked hard to create a welcoming and caring atmosphere here at Grace Diner. Even though we are a food distribution center, sometimes the food takes a backseat to just being there for people. Our diners are in difficult places in their lives and under great stress most days. My job is to let them know someone cares about them. We not only provide everyone who comes up to our table with a friendly welcome and a hot meal – a rarity for the unhoused – we check in with them as well, making sure they know they are important to us."

Skelley explained that Grace Diner's motto of "serving the underserved" has taken on much greater meaning since Covid as "Grace Lutheran was one of the only places in the city where the unhoused could get a warm meal, charge their phones, and look for a job using our free Wi-Fi."

"Lisa Skelley is truly an unsung hero to the homeless and food-challenged people who come to Grace Diner," proclaimed Vice Mayor Albert Vera. "As the Program Director she is responsible for preparing and handing out over 200 meals every weekday. Lisa knows the name of every individual she's been serving for the past many months. She knows which people can't eat certain foods, and she takes great care in understanding each individual's needs. In knowing each individual, she has personally helped people get off the street, get people into Section 8 housing, even taking them to go see an apartment. If someone needs bus fare, Lisa will reach into her own pocket to provide the person's transportation. She has also personally driven people to the DMV to get IDs and to Urgent Care facilities to get medical care. Lisa truly loves the people she helps and tries to help them become whole again. An important part of Grace Diner's program is to preserve the dignity and respect for everyone who shows up to receive food and services."

"It's difficult to believe that it's been over two years since the Diner had to re-invent itself because of Covid," Skelley observed, recalling that "we went from a one-day-a-week indoor restaurant-style experience with an annual budget of $14,000 to a five-day-a-week takeout format with a yearly budget of $90,000!

"Our demographics include the unhoused and those living in their cars, the LGBTQ community, the elderly, veterans, and the working poor – many people who have jobs and a place to live but cannot afford food. We serve many folks with physical and mental disabilities. We have a group of elderly housed people who eat with us every day. They are lonely and isolated and need the companionship of others. One of our older diners lives alone and has just finished chemotherapy. He brings a portable chair and sets it up to eat his dinner near our front table so he doesn't have to eat by himself.

"We are currently serving approximately 1,100 hot meals per week. We work with an amazing caterer who has a heart for our diners. She sends us several different meals a day, including a vegetarian option. It's really nice to be able to let people choose which meal sounds best to them. Unfortunately, the poorer you are in life, the less choices you have. Having a day filled with meal choices is a privilege that we tend to take for granted. For many of the people eating with us, this is their only meal of the day, certainly their only hot meal, and I need to say a special thank you to Councilperson Goran Erickson and Vice Mayor Albert Vera. Goran's excellent stewardship of the FeedCulver organization helped the Diner stay open these last few years. And Vice Mayor Vera has been a strong supporter of the Diner for many years. We get two large trays of salad from Sorrento's every day, donated by Albert. It's very difficult for our diners to afford fresh fruits and veggies, so these green salads are vital to those eating with us."

Lisa Skelley, center in photo, receiving awards from Anissa DiVincente of EHRAC (Equity and Human Relations Advisory Committee).

Skelley's pride in her "amazing volunteers," was apparent. She described them as "kind and compassionate. We learn everyone's name by the first visit so they are greeted when they return. The idea of welcoming others is an important part of our mission. And I can confidently say that Grace Diner would not be in the position it's in today without the help of our Culver City community. We have been blessed with the amazingly generous support of so many Culver City organizations: FeedCulver, the Exchange Club, the Rotary Club, the Culver Palms YMCA, Sorrento's Market, many local houses of worship, SAVES Food Bank, countless scouting troops, neighbors, CCHS students, and the list goes on and on."

Juneteenth has just passed and the Fourth of July is imminent, two holidays synonymous with freedom. Yet every day that Grace Diner is in operation and Skelley and her volunteers serve up smiles along with food represents a celebration of additional freedoms: freedom from hunger and isolation. This is made possible when people open their hearts. Please visit http://www.gracediner.org, email gracedinercc@gmail.com or call (310) 559-1027 if you wish to volunteer or donate to assist Skelley and Grace Diner in fulfilling their goal of combining dignity with dining.

 

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