I didn’t know what to expect when meeting Gobble Gobble Gives’s founder Barry Walker. The name struck me as, well, silly, and one reason I suggested an in-person interview is that I’m new to LA and will take any opportunity for a mini adventure. In this situation, my intuition rivals Barry’s.

Which is uncanny—and necessary for a man who’s started an event that’s 21 years strong, spans nine states, feeds 27,000 people once a year and whose explanation is “there was something guiding me.”

This year marks the third year the LA borne event will be taking place in Detroit.

I sat down with Barry to learn something of the organization’s history—and his own. Which, I learn, are inextricably bound.

PARALLEL LIVES

It began with some cans of food.

Squatting in a building in Silver Lake, Barry himself was uncomfortably close to homeless. He was thirty years old had “basically hit a brick wall at 180 miles per hour.” It wasn’t the origin story I expected. He laughs when I ask if he had a history of volunteer work.

“No,” he tells me, “I chose the other path.”

Barry spent his twenties “souped up with a whole lotta big rock bands—Korn, Deftones.” Until life went “put.” A drug OD brought him to the ER fighting for his life. That’s when he got sober.

“I got sober, and it saved my life.”

New-found sobriety, however, didn’t jibe with his past life, and he was struggling to find his place in the world. Both figuratively and literally.

“Not a great place. I had permission from the owner to stay there for a while. I had one little plug that came out of the wall. No floor boards. It was all just beams. No toilet. No bathroom or anything. But it was safety.”

By Thanksgiving, he had been sober six months. That morning he woke up with a persistent feeling that he had to do something for someone.

“I was at that crucial turning point where either ‘Fuck it. I’m going back. Rock n’ roll was pretty good, right?!’ Or I’m gonna help somebody. I’m gonna dig through this. I’m gonna figure out a way, a path for me.”

His first step would be to feed the homeless family who lived below his window.

“I had a box with a bunch of change in it. I had like nine dollars in there. And I went down to the liquor store—cause that was the only place I could get to—and I bought some cans of beans, green beans—I remember. And I think I bought a can of gravy, so I could pour it on everything to make it kind of Thanksgiving-y. It was probably pretty scary. But it was warm. I had a hot plate.

And I went to give it to these people, and they weren’t there. On holidays, people shift around. I didn’t know that back then. Because I wasn’t aware of homeless activity at all. I got on my bike with these little to-go containers. Like ‘Shit! I have to get rid of these meals.’

I came across this guy under a bridge that I knew of. And he was—I get chocked up when I tell this story—he stunk bad of rotting flesh. His legs were rotting. I handed him the meal, and he grabbed it from me. He shocked me. He scared the shit out of me. And he said “Thank you. THANK YOU.” And that was it. I bailed.

I found more people. Handed out meals. When I drove back, I was a hero.”

Barry admits that he bragged to all his friends about “helping the homeless.” He’s also forthright about how quick they were to join him. They were, in fact, the ones who chided him into action year two.

“Thanksgiving came around the next year and they were like “Hey do you want to do that thing again.” And I was like ‘Yeah totally. I going to do it. Of course. That’s what I do, right?’

It’s a testament to my friends and all the people who kept us going. We handed-out 23 meals the next year. And the next year we handed-out 50 or 60. And then we hit like 100 four years later. It was just little shops in Silver Lake. People that owned tattoo parlors or hair salons or whatever. I then had a little antique store, and we’d host it there. We’d all show up.

But, no, it wasn’t because I was inclined to be philanthropic. I just kind of fell into it, and I became an easy poster boy for my organization because I was running parallel with it. My little ‘second hand store.'”

EMPIRE

We meet in the lobby of the Mayfair Hotel historically known for hosting the first Oscars after-party, it’s also the home of Skid Row Christmas, Barry’s newest annual fundraiser. His excitement around bringing people together for charitable parties is large and athletic. More Super Bowl than black tie gala.

“On our Thanksgiving event, it’s a potluck party, so it’s food based. Everyone brings food. We throw together giant meals, we take them out to the streets, that’s how we run. This is more of a dry goods event with rechargeable lights.

They have no electricity, so rechargeable stuff is phenomenal. You go back the next day and you see all the little tents, with the lights up inside. The glowing tents on skid row. It’s a band aide on a broken arm, but it’s a band aide.”

The lights remind him of his Island on Fiji. A “modest island”, he insists. No structures. When he and his family go out, they camp. Little jelly fish lamps scattered about to keep a trail at night.

What I gather about his professional life is a handful of businesses started and sold, real estate investments, and a film career that peaked with a trip to Cannes.

He’s married with children who make him happy. He’s healthy. His wife recently published a vegan cookbook—a fact he is eager to share. His every paragraph is punctuated by acknowledgment of a “blessed life.”

Part of Barry’s charm is his ability to take it all in stride. I don’t think he knows how he arrived.

“I think I’m getting close to where I want to be, but I still don’t know where I want to be when I grow up. I’m still trying to figure stuff out.”

Gobble Gobble Give

A Haircut

SECOND-HAND STORE

During the same period Barry was gathering change to buy cans of food for the homeless, he was starting his first business, a second-hand store—”antique is the fancy word we put on it when we’re selling used Tupperware and shit like that just to survive. And I did that.”

“I’d go to yard sales and buy whatever I could. If It was a three-legged chair, and I could make it a four-legged chair, I’d buy that chair. It forced me to be creative. It forced me to work hard. But eventually, Silver Lake started coming up. It started becoming that place. And so I saw the opportunity. As my clientele became a little more upper class, I started buying more expensive things. Then I’d buy a 50-dollar item. Then, sometimes, I’d go out on a limb, and buy a 100-dollar item and sell it for 200. This happened until I had four stores really nice stores.

I like to think I created that whole East side antique thing because everyone started rushing in. Then I was selling to all the designers on the West side. I spun that into the Raven spas—we ended up having a spa called the Raven in Silver Lake. We opened one in Beverly Hills. And then the Raven in Santa Monica. We opened up a yoga center. I got into real estate. One thing led to another. My journey has been pretty incredible.”

TRANSFORMATION

Talking to Barry, GGG doesn’t seem to have changed much in the two decades since he and his friends first gathered to arrange to-go boxes for the homeless: It’s still “a little party on Thanksgiving” where “7,000 of his best friends show up to help out.”

Despite a massive growth of volunteers and participants, the equation is simple: participants gather on Thanksgiving morning with family style portions of food that are placed into boxes which are then loaded into cars, bicycles and hands that hit the street to find and feed homeless.

Services have been added: haircuts, clothing drives—bags of toiletries are passed out with the food. But what continues to be the organization’s point of difference is that participants seek out the homeless. As David Montanbeau, founder of the Detroit and Nashville chapters, shares, “Some people are so disconnected from society, they don’t even know it’s Thanksgiving.”

Feeding the homeless on any holiday is not novel, and it’s something Barry has struggled with, but the years have revealed its purpose. Gobble Gobble Give isn’t about feeding people. It’s about boots on the ground contact with a segment of society that is invisible 364 days a year.

“I don’t think we’re going to save anyone’s life by handing them a turkey sandwich on Thanksgiving. But when I turn around to the people who are out there doing it with me, and I watch these children grow up through our events, I watch people that are fighting cancer show up with their groups, when I see the bus from Sons of Anarchy pull up and all the cast and crew pile out, when I see all the boy scouts—

That’s where the change happens, and that’s where we’re effecting the most people.”

“Every year after Thanksgiving, I get phone calls from people, They’re like ‘Dude, I just did it again. I just did it.” Like a week later—”me and some friends got together and we did it.'”

These days too many logistics prevent Barry from hitting the streets himself, but his stories from his time on the ground are the most powerful—such as the time a man pulled a knife on his brother.

“We were in a park in Santa Monica. He turns into an alley, and a guy pulled a knife on him. And he said “Stay away from me!” Ryan was just like “I-I-I just wanted to bring you a meal for Thanksgiving. And the guy was like “It’s Thanksgiving?”

We all just started crying. The guy was soooo thankful. He put the knife down, of course.”

Gobble Gobble Give

A Young Homeless Man

REFLECTIONS

I ask Barry if he remembers a time when he was humbled by the help of others.

“That whole year or two when I was in recovery—I’m still in recovery, but that was my active recovery. People did everything for me. I flat-lined at Glendale Memorial hospital. I was brought back by doctors. My only conscious moment was somebody saying “It’s an OD. It’s an OD. And then they rushed to another room. People cared about me for a while. They wiped my nose. Wiped my butt for me. They did everything.

I don’t get to say thanks enough to people like that. I’ve tried, in recovery, to reach out to other people, hold them up when they need it, and I’ve been successful. And I feel good about that.

There’s been a whole lot of people who’ve helped me, and I wouldn’t be anywhere without it. That’s why I’ve been so successful in business. Because I know that—and don’t take credit for it. I surround myself with people who are smart, caring, and loving. People who protect and help guide me. I would never try to go at it alone.”

After our 45 minutes together, I am confident I could text him from the side of the road with a flat and he would come to help.

I ask if he could image his life without his philanthropic endeavors. It’s a stupid question akin to asking someone what their life would be like had they been born an only-child or with blue eyes instead of green. Surrounding himself with others is part of his composition.

That’s the thing: it’s not about helping the homeless. It’s about helping each other. Every year he is spending his holidays in the best way imaginable.

Stupid question or not, he takes time to answer it.

“I know what if would have been like had I not cleaned up. That I know for sure. Without a doubt. What is even more haunting to me, are the people I knew that were able to moderate their drug use and didn’t hit a wall at 180 degrees and watch their life implode like me.

They were always like ‘Poor, Barry, he didn’t know how to moderate. That’s why he got sober.’

And I see those people now. It’s a rock n’ roll world. A lot of money. A lot of dreams. A lot of fake ideas. And then it all gets yanked away from you when you’re not young and pretty anymore.

I’m very fortunate I hit that wall. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

But I don’t know about the philanthropic—I’m just lucky that it did come together. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Maybe it was the stars? I’d like to believe it was, that there was something guiding me. Something inside of me.”

gobble gobble give

detroit

GET INVOLVED: DETROIT

Thursday, November 22nd @ 8:00am – Noon PST

Bert’s Warehouse Entertainment – 2739 Russell St., Detroit, MI 48207

VOLUNTEER

Together, volunteers from across the country take traditional holiday food, some gently used clothes, shoes, and blankets, to the streets, giving back to the people who need it most. Gobble Gobble Give also enlists local hairdressers and make-up artists to provide free grooming services. Additionally both Ralph’s and Amazon Smile give back to the initiative when participants use their code at check-out.

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