When Gina Serial moved to Orange County from the Naples, Florida area in 2004, it undoubtedly seemed the ideal locale for her career as an artist. Little did she know that her decision to come to the region would also lead to her founding Our Father’s Table, a ministry that has already helped more than 300 people overcome chronic homelessness since its inception in 2014.
As a classically trained artist specializing in custom projects for high-end residences, Seriel has created everything from murals to trompe l’oeils to hand-painted wallpaper. And indeed, Orange County’s luxury housing market afforded steady demand for her talent. But upon returning to the practice of her faith in her 40s, Seriel felt the Lord calling her to something greater.
“(I) felt that, ‘Lord, there’s got to be more to life than painting murals in people’s homes,’” she said. “I love what I do, but there’s just got to be more to life than that.”
RETURNING TO THE FOLD
Born and raised in a Cuban-Sicilian home, “Catholicism was pretty much in our blood from generations back,” Seriel said.
“So, I ended up going back to the Church and going, ‘Lord, where do you want me to be? What do you want me to do? Whatever you want my life to be for your purpose, let me know and I’ll do it,’” she explained.
She began attending Mass at Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, becoming involved with Serra’s Pantry among other ministries. While working with a particular woman through the ministry, Seriel witnessed firsthand how complicated rising out of chronic homelessness can be.
“Our Father’s Table kind of sprang from that daily Mass and that daily prayer of, ‘What do you want me to do?’” she said.
While the organization’s name evokes images of people coming to the Lord’s table as one, Seriel also sees it as a tribute to her own father. She recalls how he did not hesitate to share his meal with a hungry stranger in need outside a restaurant in Athens.
“It was instinctual. He didn’t even flinch,” she said.
A PERSONAL APPROACH
The U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development defines a chronically homeless person as someone who is not part of a homeless family; has either been homeless for a year or more or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the least three years; and has a disabling condition such as a substance- abuse disorder, a serious mental illness, a developmental disability or a chronic physical illness or disability.
“That group has a very specific set of needs, a very specific set of barriers,” Seriel said. “So, I decided to really focus on that – how can we help them? What are their needs? And from that point on, we created a homeless-intervention program, and from that intervention program we really work on restoration.”
Seriel noted that while there are hundreds of agencies and thousands of programs designed to serve the homeless, the chronically homeless are seldom aware of the programs that exist, much less which are best suited to help them personally. Moreover, Seriel has found that overcoming chronic homelessness typically requires interaction with dozens of agencies from the time one is homeless until one is in a stable housing situation.
“When someone enters into our program, we have a very one-on-one relationship with them … We become their mentor, we become their advocate, we become their navigator,” Seriel said. “We’re …looking at and what are the specific hurdles they’re trying to overcome… and then we address those together.”
Rather than drawing homeless people in through food drives and other events, Seriel and other Our Father’s Table volunteers actively go out seeking those in need. Seriel notes that while members of the homeless community suffering severe mental illness or addiction may be easy to spot, others maintain a low profile.
“I teach my volunteers all the time the little things to look for, for somebody who’s living on the street that normally you wouldn’t notice,” she said.
Our Father’s Table’s Care Navigators strive to build permanent friendships with those they see to help, an approach Seriel sees as a vital to the organization’s 95 percent success rate. Viewing the
individuals it serves as friends rather than clients, Our Father’s Table is better able to adapt to the desires of the individual, and even provide assistance if needed after the individual is no longer homeless.
“We have the unique ability to really connect with our folks – that’s one of our secret sauces for our success rate,” Seriel said. “These success stories aren’t the end results of something that we have created, that we have wanted for them. The end result is what they have wanted for themselves.”
For more information about Our Father’s Table, visit wwwourfatherstableus.org