Richmond restaurant to host more than 1,000 people for homeless, veteran awareness this Thanksgiving
on November 26, 2014
Menbere Aklilu could barely hold back tears. Even amid the tumult of planning for this year’s annual Thanksgiving Day Celebration for veterans and the homeless at her Marina Bay restaurant, Salute e Vita, she needed a moment to reflect on how she got to where she is today.
That’s because Menbere—or Menbe, as she is affectionately known—was once homeless herself.
“When you’re in the homeless shelter, you have no idea how much it makes you happy to be given dignity,” she said.
Salute’s 4th annual Thanksgiving Day Celebration has grown into an event expected to host more than 1,000 veterans and other homeless men, women and children from around the Bay Area. Shelters from Concord, Berkeley, Vallejo and Richmond will converge on the elegant restaurant for a white-linen feast.
And the charity won’t end there. Tents will be set up outside of the restaurant to provide flu shots, and the Coast Guard has provided boats to take guests on tours of the bay. Several local officials are expected, and even some members of the San Francisco 49ers are planning to join in on the meal.
Aklilu will be bringing in an unprecedented amount of food for the event, including 50 turkeys, all of which were donated by Richmond Wholesale. Galaxy Desserts, also located near the Marina, will provide desserts.
Kyle Dunson, who works with Supportive Services for Veteran Families in conjunction with the Berkeley Food and Housing/Roads Home program, stressed the poignancy of Thanksgiving for veterans.
“The (veterans) I spoke to were really thrilled about what’s going on,” he said.“Some of these veterans don’t have any family and to do something like this is really commemorative of recognizing their service and sacrifice.”
Organizers say the event brings attention to an ongoing crisis. About 50,000 veterans are homeless in the U.S. on any given night, according to Department of Housing and Urban Development statistics. About 4,000 people in Contra Costa County are homeless.
Aklilu said she started aiming to serve veterans by chance. A couple of years ago, she learned that one of her guests was both homeless and a war veteran.
“He gives himself to this country for freedom but he’s homeless?” she said. “I thought, ‘You know what? I have to give more.’”
As an Ethiopian immigrant, Aklilu spent many years struggling to make ends meet in both Italy and The United States.
After moving up the ranks in the restaurant industry, she eventually founded Salute e Vita. Today, it’s one of the most successful restaurants in Richmond.
Aklilu said she is undaunted by the amount of mouths to feed.
“The first year when I saw the reaction of the people, it prompted me to do more. 99 percent said they had never been in the restaurant,” she said. “Some of them were praying and crying.”
Aklilu said the event is about more than the food, but about providing confidence for the downtrodden.
One difference is the way she serves them.
”We don’t do buffet,” she said. “We serve them with knives, forks, silverware and glasses because we treat them with dignity and respect. We treat them with dignity and love.”
Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus said he looks forward to attending.
“(Aklilu) is really an amazing woman and it’s really a pleasure to join her and find another way to give back,” he said. “It’s really a pleasure being a part of it every year.”
Non-perishable donations will be accepted at the event. The volunteers serve three separate meals from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thanksgiving Day.
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