2021 Citizen of the Year

Grace Diner’s Skelley leads community meals program By Gary Kohatsu

Courtesy Photo TOP VOLUNTEER—Grace Diner director Lisa Skelley has led the church’s meals program from its inception in 2009. She was named Culver City’s 2021 City of the Year by the city council.

They say behind every great enterprise is a great leader. Grace Diner has a great leader in Lisa Skelley. She was named Culver City’s 2021 Citizen of the Year for her unwavering dedication to Grace Diner (an outreach ministry through Grace Lutheran Church) and helping to feed hungry citizens, at the Dec. 13 City Council meeting. “I felt a myriad of emotions at the time–complete disbelief and total amazement being the two top feelings,” Skelley told the News recently. “To me, this award represents an acknowledgement by the city (and city council) of the hard work and dedication that it takes to feed those experiencing chronic hunger in our community.” She is the third recipient of the award, which was introduced in 2017 by former mayor, Jim B. Clarke. Councilman Alex Fisch nominated Skelley for the 2021 honors. “Lisa had been on my mind  for quite some time as an outstanding volunteer,” Fisch said. “Grace Diner has been doing amazing work throughout the pandemic and I know that she was there every day. People like Lisa help fill the large holes in our safety net. I wanted to recognize that.” Fisch mentioned that he was approached by fellow councilman G?ran Eriksson to nominate Skelley. “I figured if Göran and I agree on an honoree, that’s probably the right person,” Fisch said. Diner History Lesson For the uninformed, Grace Diner has been the most popular eats in Culver City for more than a decade. Grace Diner has also fed even more people on a near daily basis during the pandemic than all the restaurants in the city combined — a dozen times over. Grace Diner, a nonprofit, 501(c), tax exempt organization, according to its mission statement was created “to serve the underserved in our community by providing diners with a free, three-course meal that is served with respect, in a warm, restaurant- style setting.” City officials noted that during COVID-19, Grace Diner “served not just the unhoused and low-income individuals in Culver City, but young professionals and middle-class families where both parents lost their jobs at the same time.” Council officials said that “through Lisa’s invaluable leadership, Grace Diner has become an impressive all-volunteer organization, and has teamed up with FeedCulver, FoodCycleLA, the Culver Palms YMCA, and many other community organizations and restaurants, to prepare and distribute nourishing and nutritious meals to those in need in the community.” Skelley and her volunteers have been a driving force in transitioning from indoor-dining to a takeout-style service since pandemic regulations started in the spring of 2020. The Diner has expanded its operation in the past two years as the needs and the demographics have changed, Skelley noted. “Grace Diner has seen our numbers go through the roof,” she said. “From 2009 to 2019, we served 110 meals a week in its original concept of a restaurant- style setting; we are serving close to 1,000 meals a week now.” First Volunteer Skelley was among the first workers when Grace Diner was started by parishioner Ken Smith in 2009. “Lisa Skelley immediately volunteered to be the coordinator of the program,” Smith said. “We served the first dinner about three weeks after (its launch).” Smith said that Skelley volunteered to run the upstairs dining room in the church parish hall and manage all of the volunteers, while also purchasing food. She would eventually bring in a piano player for the diners’ listening pleasure. Grace Diner has taken every precaution to keep everybody safe from the virus, he added. “We made sure there was social distancing and also supplied masks and hand sanitizer to those who needed them,” Smith said. “Lisa also had the CCFD (fire department) set up two hand-washing stations outside the church, and a phone charging station for those that did not have a place to charge their phones.” Skelley said she and her team try to ensure those in need get special service, while practicing social distancing. “My team and I have worked diligently to provide the same sort of friendly environment to everyone who stands in line for a takeout meal as we did when we served upstairs at Grace Lutheran,” Skelley said. “We know everyone’s names, what their coffee order looks like, who is housed and able to cook, and who is struggling and needs a little more attention and conversation.” She said that despite the challenges of observing pandemic regulations and working to get donations to keep the operation running, the Grace team works on adding surprises for her diners. “We now have Ramen Bar Tuesdays where we turn instant ramen into a gourmet meal by adding (various spices and ingredients),” she said. “Our inaugural run was last week and it was a big hit! This is how we show love to our diners–by taking a few extra steps in the process.” Children are also treated as “special guests” and are given toys and treats, she mentioned. “I can only hope that when these kids look back to standing in our line, they remember it as a positive experience,” Skelley said. All About The Team Despite being singled out for outstanding service, Skelley said it’s a team effort that is vital to Grace Diner’s success, as well as community support. She said the teamwork begins with church offi cials. “Grace Diner is indebted to Grace Lutheran for its commitment to the unhoused and working poor of our city,” she said. “Without the church’s ongoing generosity, we would not be able to continue feeding hundreds of people each week.” She also gave a shoutout to two individuals: caterer Erica Moore, who provides meals four nights a week and said her meals are both outstanding and nutritious. And Lori Siegel and her staff at the Culver-Palms YMCA, who have shown invaluable service with their food donations, which have “provided our diners with so much crucial supplemental food.” Mary Lou Basaraba, Grace Church director of music ministry, said she couldn’t be more pleased over Skelley’s COY Award and called her church colleague a “tireless” worker. Basaraba’s monthly MidDay at Grace monthly concert series has been a steady fundraiser of donations by attending music lovers since April 2020. Skelley said the rising cost of operating the church’s hot meal program has been staggering since the start of the pandemic. “Grace Diner has gone from an annual operating budget of $14,000 in 2019 to over $120k in 2022,” she said. “I’m an English major and that kind of jump in dollar amount seems like another language to me.” But, despite the challenges of funding, Skelley said the charity work of helping those in need outweighs any frustrations. “It’s not an easy job, but I feel strongly that what we do matters,” she said. “This population of people are often invisible in our community and are marginalized through their extreme poverty. Our diners have become our friends and we try and show them daily that these friendships are important to us.” Skelley added, “I consider myself an essential front line worker and couldn’t be happier in my career choice.” Those interested in supporting the Diner can visit gracediner. org. Skelley said the Diner also needs bottled water for the unhoused, sleeping bags and dessert donations.