I recently interviewed Bruno Serato, an Italian who emigrated from Verona to America 30 years ago. In retrospect Skype was the perfect media choice because Bruno is a larger-than-life, animated, gregarious fellow, who's best enjoyed face-to-face. Bruno's a chef who has owned The White House restaurant, a landmark in Anaheim, California, in Orange County, for 27 years.
A Mother's Influence
Bruno was 49 in 2005 when his mother, Caterina visited from Italy. Bruno was volunteering at the local Boys and Girls Club where he brought his mother late one afternoon. It was dinnertime and Caterina noticed a boy eating a small bag of potato chips. When Bruno asked the club director why the boy was eating potato chips for dinner the director said he was probably a "motel kid", an expression Bruno had never heard before. The motel kids are children from families living in Section-8 housing, which includes motels. California designates motel families as homeless. These children had spent their after-school hours and weekends at the Boys and Girls Club until recently when budget cuts forced the Club to close at 5 p.m. during the week and remain closed on weekends.
The director further explained that millions of kids in America of every race are living in motels because their families, while not necessarily poor since many parents have jobs, simply can't afford the first and last month's rent and security deposit required for leasing an apartment. And since motels don't have kitchens, kids don't get home-cooked meals. Each motel room typically houses seven to nine family members, and the children frequently eat from vending machines. Not surprisingly motel kids generally do poorly in school, due in part to deficient diet and lack of a quiet space to study.
A Million Meals
Bruno's mother was appalled these children weren't getting nutritious meals, and she encouraged Bruno to feed them. Bruno agreed, and a few days later he delivered the first meals to the Boys and Girls Club, enough freshly cooked pasta and tomato sauce to feed 20 to 30 children. The news spread quickly and the number grew to 100 children overnight. Today Bruno is feeding 1,400 children a day. And 20 local Chapman College volunteers are delivering 25 pounds of uncooked pasta a day to mobile home parks where families have kitchens. Last month Bruno's program reached the one-million-meals-served mark, an extraordinary accomplishment for a solo effort.
Bruno employs three, full-time kitchen staff to cook 90 pounds of pasta and 15 gallons of tomato sauce daily, and he's delivering food to 20 locations in 10 cities in Orange County now. Several times a year Bruno brings 300-400 children at a time to eat at his restaurant so they can experience fine dining and get a sense of what's possible.
During the recession of 2009, Bruno's restaurant business dropped 40 percent. Two of his customers who had made $5,000-a-year donations ended up living in motels. But the children still needed to eat, so Bruno mortgaged his restaurant and home in order to continue feeding the children. He has since remortgaged both, a fact he mentioned reluctantly only after I asked how he's made ends meet.
Bruno started another program seven years ago, The Welcome Home Project, which is aimed at families living in motels when one or both parents have jobs. He gives motel families $3,000-$4,000 to cover the first and last month's rent, plus security deposit. Bruno self-funded The Welcome Home Project, which moved 85 families, 500 people, into apartments in the first two years. Caterina's Club, named after Bruno's mother, who died a month short of her 90th birthday last year, is now set up to accept donations, at www.caterinasclub.org.
Bruno has a third project in the works. He's teaching children the hospitality business so when they're teenagers and need to work they'll have restaurant skills. Beginning this September Bruno is offering a free, eight-week course in the restaurant industry to the children he's fed for 10 years.
In response to Bruno's program, Barilla, the giant Italian pasta manufacturer, decided to sponsor a program similar to his in their New York and Chicago restaurants. Barilla has already donated 10 tons of pasta from their restaurants to feed children.
I was sorry when the interview ended. Bruno's enthusiasm, energy, and optimism are a joy to experience. Bruno's heart is truly gold, which thousands of well-fed children in Orange County will gladly attest to.
Bruno's reaction to my use of the word hero to describe him was similar to every hero I've interviewed. "I'm no hero, I just couldn't watch hungry children and do nothing." Also like the other heroes, Bruno hasn't a shred of ego. He only agreed to be interviewed to raise public awareness about America's hungry children. At 59, Bruno Serato is an ordinary man doing extraordinary things. A million meals is a Herculean feat for an individual. Bruno Serato fits anyone's definition of heroism.