By KATHLEEN LUPPI
Bruno Serato, the owner of Anaheim White House restaurant, has served 1 million meals to hungry children over 10 years.
The restaurateur's mission of serving pasta dinners to Orange County's neediest families paid homage to his humble beginnings in his homeland of Italy and led to him founding the service organization Caterina's Club, named in honor of his late mother.
Serato now serves more than 1,200 children daily in seven cities: Anaheim, Stanton, Buena Park, Garden Grove, Fountain Valley, Orange and Santa Ana.
After learning about the number of families living in motels in Anaheim, he expanded Caterina's Club to help relocate families to homes.
Serato was named one of CNN's 10 Heroes of the Year. He was also knighted by the Italian government and awarded the Boys & Girls Clubs of America President's Award.
Serato recently talked about his philanthropy.
Question: You serve 1,200 underprivileged children warm dinners every night. How did that come about?
Serato: It all started with Mama. Ten years ago, on April 18, Mama Caterina was visiting from Italy.... I took Mama down to the Boys and Girls Club off of Broadway [in Anaheim] to play with the kids as well as meet my good friend and then-Executive Director Mike Baker.
Mama was filled with joy to be around the bambini until she noticed a child having a bag of Lay's potato chips right around dinnertime. Mama Caterina's Italian instinct kicked in, and she wanted to know why the child was having such a poor snack so close to dinnertime. It was in this moment that Bruno and Mama Caterina would learn what a motel child was.
Mike Baker informed [us] both that these types of foods were typical dinners for many of the children who live in motels, because their parents were often working late and do not have a kitchen in the motel rooms to cook anything. Mama instantly turned to Bruno and demanded that Bruno have the restaurant cook up dinner for all of the kids right away. So Bruno, always obedient to Mama, who knows best and inherited her generous heart, called in to Bruno's fine-dining restaurant 60 to-go pasta dishes.
The management thought Bruno was crazy, but what was actually crazy is that since that night, Bruno never stopped. The first few years it was 60 meals a night, every night. The membership at the club grew, and word got out that Bruno was cooking up meals for these children to make sure they had a warm-cooked meal before going to sleep, and soon there were a lot more than 60 children to feed. Bruno began serving at other Boys and Girls Clubs, and then other after-school programs like the YMCA and sports programs at high schools where the most at-risk children in Orange County attend.
Bruno's mentality, when asked why every day, is simply a question: "Do you have dinner every day? Or only three times a week?" Bruno insists that every new location Caterina's Club serves adopts the dinner program nightly, and that the staff requires the children to sit down together and dine as a family would. Bruno's hope is to instill confidence, support and camaraderie amongst the children, as during these crucial times in their childhood lives.
Q: Caterina's Club was inspired by your late mother. What lessons did she teach you that you carry on in your life and in the charity's mission?
Serato: My mother taught me to simply care for others, to take on others' issues as my own and to find a way when there seems to be no answer. Mama always found a way to feed our family of seven children, even in our hardest of times, she made the environment light and enjoyable, and she whipped together full meals that always satisfied us. Our home was always open for others, and she welcomed anyone to the table with a happy heart.
Q: The recession forced you to refinance Anaheim White House and your home in Huntington Beach, and at one point you considered shuttering Caterina's Club. What made you want to continue running the charity?
Serato: An unknown wise man once said that necessity breeds the greatest invention. I was not feeding these children for fun, for some extra addition to their lives. I was feeding them because it was absolutely necessary. The day I was going to call Mike Baker to tell him we would not be serving the dinner next week, he called me first.
What he had to say was, "Bruno, we have tripled in kids for the summer, and the number of motel children are higher than ever. We have to increase the pasta." In that moment, I had no choice but to become creative and to find a way, the way my mom always did.
So I thought of some other, new ways I might be able to find funding, and for a while it worked. Then my friends, my regulars, local companies and our community stepped in. I now have a team of supporters in the fight for remedying childhood hunger here in Orange County.
Q: What's next for Caterina's Club?
Serato: We will continue to feed over 1,200 children a night with hopes of expanding to more locations as long as there is a need. We have now fed over 1 million meals, and we are not stopping here. In addition to maintaining and expanding our food outreach to Orange County, we are aggressively encouraging others, in other cities, other states and other countries, to start their own "Caterina's Club." To name their project after their mama and to be a philanthropic leader in their community.
I cannot fix hunger in America, but if there were thousands of other chef Brunos, then we certainly could. We have already stewarded programs in Chicago, Brownsville, Texas, Brooklyn and in northern Italy. This is my focus for the food program.
I also started a cooking class for the children at Skyview Elementary and Middle School [in Orange]. This school is home to our most at-risk youth in the county. Of the 60 students, the majority are living in motels or transitional housing.
As you may know, we have rolled out the Welcome Home program. We wanted to go beyond serving dinner and provide these children with the opportunity to live somewhere they were proud to invite their friends over to. We have moved out 82 families from the dark environment of a motel and into the safety and longevity of an apartment or condo.
We hope to bring this number to 100 by the end of this year. Our staff members and volunteers are working vigorously on researching the source of the plight of motel living. They are also working on collaborating with the right organizations to create a lasting remedy and prevention to this problem.
For more information about Caterina's Club, visit caterinasclub.org
Register for IALA's Event Dinner with Sir Bruno, here.
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