California Project Aiding ‘Motel Kids’ Seeks Global Expansion

A rags-to-riches immigrant chef is serving up a global plan to feed impoverished kids everywhere.

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — An Orange County chef, who began feeding impoverished children out of his restaurant in 2005, has created a special project to continue the work, which he hopes to expand to a global level.

“Growing up, I knew what it was like firsthand to be a part of a low-income family,” Bruno Serato told CNA, “so I identified with these kids.”

“I experienced many struggles myself, as I came from a place of hardship and struggle,” he said.

Serato, originally from Verona, Italy, where he grew up as one of seven children in a poor family, moved to the United States more than 30 years ago. He began to work as a dishwasher, but within five years had become the chef and owner of his own restaurant, the Anaheim White House, which is now a high-end restaurant in the area.

In 2003, the chef created “Caterina’s Club,” a project named after his mother that raises money for underprivileged children.

When Serato’s mother came to visit him in 2005, he took her to the local Boys and Girls Club, which is the main recipient of his club’s charitable funds. While they were there, Serato and his mother encountered a young boy eating a bag of potato chips for dinner.

It was then that they learned of the situation of the “motel kids.” It is a common phenomenon in the area, where low-income families are unable to pay rent for an apartment and are forced to live day-to-day in cheap hotels.

Often immersed in an environment of poverty, drugs, alcohol and prostitution, the kids often go without dinners because their parents cannot afford to pay for food, and there are usually no kitchens in the hotels where they stay.

Serato recalled that when they heard this, his mother told him, “Bruno! Go back to your restaurant and make all of these kids dinner!” He did, and he has done it every night since.

“I continued to feed them because I thought to myself, 'I don’t have a warm meal just one night a week or a few times a month,'” he explained. “I eat dinner every night, and so do you. So these kids, they are going to eat every night!”

In 2011, Serato was nominated as one of CNN’s “Top 10” local heroes for feeding more than 200 children pasta every night as an out-of-pocket expense. Since then, the publicity about his project has grown, and he now feeds more than 1,000 children each night, operating almost 100% off of donations.

“The expansion of feeding the kids has only been possible because of our generous donors” and by “the help of God,” the chef said. Serato added that a 2013 fundraiser held by local KFI radio “raised roughly 21,000 pounds of pasta and sauce alone.”

“It is partnerships like this that enable us to reach the people who want to help in our community but don’t know how or where,” he noted, explaining that “we currently feed children at after-school programs at eight locations.”


The Story of Carlos

Sharing the story of a family of six who lived in a motel for 12 years, Serato recalled that he originally met the family’s son, Carlos, at the Boys and Girls Club.

“I soon realized he was part of the Boys and Girls Club’s Motel Outreach Program,” the chef said. He stated that, after learning “what a motel family was,” he “learned that Carlos has been living in a motel his entire life and had known nothing different.”

“His parents had been stuck in the motel situation for 12 years, paying more monthly than they would if they were in an apartment or townhome,” he explained, adding that “the only thing restricting them and their children from getting out of the motel life was a down payment.”

Being moved by the family’s situation, Caterina’s Club found “a good place for them,” and once the paperwork had been finalized, the chef “provided them with the down payment that had been holding Carlos and his family in a motel for 12 years.”


Going Global

Expressing his hopes for the future, Serato highlighted his desire to “inspire people not just in America but across the globe to adopt Caterina’s program” and to “name theirs after their own mothers.”

Serato said that although he understands these are “huge hopes,” Caterina’s Club is already communicating with various contacts in “Italy, New York, Chicago, South America and surrounding cities in Southern California.”

Other organizations that have worked closely with the chef’s project are KFI, the YMCA, the Fresh Produce and Floral Council, as well as an organization called Illumination Foundation, which seeks to move families out of hotels to “safe, comfortable homes and apartments.”

Serato said that he is also “a good friend” of the bishop of Orange County, Kevin Vann, who writes about and promotes the chef’s efforts in various ways throughout the diocese.

“Every child deserves to go to bed with a warm, nutritional meal in their stomachs,” Serato said, “not just in Anaheim; not just in Verona; but in every city, every village, everywhere.”