Click photo to enlarge
The Watsonville Veterans Hall was filled with celebration on Wednesday during the Community Connection Thanksgiving event. (Kevin Johnson/Sentinel)

WATSONVILLE -- The dance music filling the Veterans Memorial Building Wednesday matched Jodie Wells' bouncy step as he shook hands and bumped fists with the people on the front steps. Inside the hall, around 270 people gathered around plates piled high with turkey, ham, rolls and salad. Their warm conversation, at rows of folding tables, rivaled the upbeat music.

This Community Connection Thanksgiving Meal, now in its sixth year, brought South County Mental Health workers and their clients together in a celebration, Wells said.

"It gives a sense of community to a culture that's been stigmatized," he said. Wells is a program coordinator at the Mariposa Wellness Center, a part of Santa Cruz County's Community Connection program. Mariposa works in partnership with South County Mental Health to help and support clients.

"We help them build skills and strategies to deal with themselves," he said.

Wells points to success stories such as Phil Ashadina Jr. Ashadina had visited Mariposa on and off in the past decade, in between struggles with drugs and alcohol. For the past three years he's come to Mariposa every day and is celebrating two years of sobriety.

"My life has changed tremendously," Ashadina said. He's led peer support groups at the center, and got a job as a peer aide with Community Connection. Ashadina credits his success ultimately to his faith, but said that Wells has been a strong role model for him.

He enjoys this Thanksgiving dinner because it brings many of his friends together.

"It's like a second family," he said.


Advertisement

At the dinner, 30 gift bags lined the hall stage, to be awarded as door prizes by South County case manager Joaquin Barreto, who acted as disc jockey.

The bags, containing gloves, food and hygiene kits, were sponsored by Watsonville churches, said Asayo Westerly, another South County worker. Donations of ham and turkey from Front St. Inc. and fruits and vegetables from Second Harvest filled out the meal.

Victor Yanez, of South County Mental Health, said the dinner gives workers and clients a chance to interact in a different setting.

"There's no desk between us," he said.

As volunteers continued serving food to a waiting line, Westerly surveyed the bright gym and the small group dancing earnestly in front of Barreto's speakers.

"This speaks to why we have Thanksgiving," she said.

If you go

Homeless Services Center's Community Thanksgiving

What: The Homeless Services Center is hosting a community Thanksgiving that can serve up to 350 people. In addition to food, there also will be a chess tournament, arts and crafts, and a shoe and sock giveaway.
When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday
Where: Homeless Services Center, 115 B Coral St., Santa Cruz
Cost: Free
Details: www.scshelter.org, 458-6020

Swingtime Cafe's Thanksgiving

What: Annual Thanksgiving meal at Hansen Temporary Park.
When: Noon to 2 p.m. Thursday
Where: Hansen Temporary Park, 447 Main St. Watsonville
Cost: Free
Details: www.swingtimecafe.com, 786-0812

Vegan Thanksgiving Dinner

What: Cafe Gratitude's free Thanksgiving meal will include a raw and vegan feast including a beverage, entree and dessert.
When: Noon to 3 p.m. Thursday
Where: Cafe Gratitude, 103 Lincoln St., Santa Cruz
Cost: Free
Details: www.cafegratitude.com, 427-9583

Salvation Army Thanksgiving Meal

What: This Thanksgiving meal is served at the Salvation Army and supports
homeless and low income individuals in the Watsonville community.
When: 1-6 p.m. Thursday
Where: Salvation Army, 112 Grant St., Watsonville
Details: 724-3922, ext. 201