For 62 homeless children who live in shelters in Long Beach, Torrance, Sylmar, Los Angeles, Canoga Park and Venice, December 18 was one of their happiest days in 2017.
After the kids were bused to Vittorio’s Ristorante on Marquez Avenue and served a lunch of pizza and garlic rolls, Santa came with wrapped gifts for each child. In addition to the toys, each youngster left with a large decorated cookie.
Marie Steckmest, who organizes an annual Holiday Spirit Toy Drive through Palisades Cares, sees that half of the toys collected go to these children. “This is one of my favorite events of the year,” said the former Citizen of the Year.
Hank Elder, a member of the Sons of the American Legion (SAL), said that his organization paid for the buses.
“For the first time, SAL members decorated Vittorio’s with Christmas decorations in anticipation of the Homeless Children’s Christmas party,” Elder said.“I saw a miracle. I cannot think of anything in Pacific Palisades as special as this event this time of year.”
Elder said that each age-appropriate gift is chosen for a child and then wrapped. The goal was for each child to receive four gifts.“These were most likely the only ones the children would receive for Christmas,” Elder said.
Steckmest and Elder pointed out the two people truly responsible for this event: Vittorio’s owner Mercedes Pellegrini and her daughter Vanessa, who have sponsored it the past seven years.
“We are so blessed and grateful to everyone who comes out to help wrap gifts, give gifts and volunteer that day,” Vanessa said.
This celebration came out of pain, after Vanessa was diagnosed with CNS (central nervous system) lupus in December 2010 and hospitalized for two weeks.
“We weren’t sure I was going to pull through, since the disease was attacking the blood vessels in my brain,” Vanessa said.“ My mother, being a devout Catholic, prayed to Nossa Senhora de Aparecida in Brazil. She performs miracles, according to local legend, and so my mother prayed.”
(Her mother was born in São Paulo, Brazil, and met her husband Ron while he was traveling to Rio de Janeiro for Carnivale. The couple married and Mercedes came to the United States, where she started Mercedes’ Continental Delights, a bakery in the San Fernando Valley. In 1984, she opened Vittorio’s Ristorante with a partner, but when Giovanni Mazzola left to open a new restaurant in Malibu, Mercedes kept Vittorio’s.)
Mercedes’ prayers were answered and after a few weeks of intensive care in the hospital, Vanessa was sent home, well on the way to recovery.
“As an offering, we both promised to give back to the less fortunate children, who are innocent and often times are the victims of circumstance,” Vanessa said. “I had worked with School on Wheels since 1999 and I was intimately involved with kids who were living in abused homes, homeless shelters and transitory houses. These were the children that were forgotten, and so, the Holiday Luncheon was born.”
School on Wheels provides academic tutoring to children living in shelters, motels, cars, group foster homes and on the streets with the hope of having them achieve educational success, so they can break the cycle of homelessness and poverty.
Vanessa, who attended a parochial school in the Valley and then graduated from Pepperdine, told the News in a December 26 email, “I’m still fighting the battle [with lupus].” She works with her mom in the restaurant and at the Palisades office of Pacific Union Realty (formerly Gibson International). She has two sisters, Sabrina and Pia.
“The luncheon is an amazing day for us, for the kids and for the community!” Vanessa said. “We have no plans to stop this wonderful tradition.”
Read the article on Palisades News here.