UC Irvine alumnus Ian Daelucian knows how to put on a spread.
At a pop-up event he recently staged to feed the homeless, Daelucian and a crew of volunteers set up banquet tables near the Santa Ana Civic Center and dished out vegetarian curry, chili and tacos, salad with fresh fruit, and other wholesome fare. Most of the food came from local farms instead of cans — not your typical soup kitchen cuisine.
“We serve it with flair, with tablecloths and chafers — the whole nine yards,” Daelucian says. “Imagine a catered event; that’s essentially what it is. We don’t cut corners.”
To Daelucian, such details are important because he wants to nurture both bodies and spirits. He founded the nonprofit organization The Heart of Delight in 2013 to provide the homeless and low-income residents with food, shelter and necessities, as well as opportunities for creative expression and learning so that they not only survive but thrive. The implied message delivered with each meal: You’re not society’s discards. You have value.
Serving up self-esteem
“When we share meals, it’s high-quality, organic food — the same food that we would serve at our own dinner tables,” Daelucian says. “It’s not scraps or extra food that we were going to waste. That’s generally the mentality that you have with a lot of nonprofits and restaurants and grocery stores: ‘Let’s just give it to the homeless. We were going to throw it out anyway.’ But that’s not the kind of energy we want to transfer to our homeless population.”
He holds these daylong events, each dubbed A Rising / Delightful Feast, monthly at the Santa Ana Civic Center. “A lot of people call [such meal services] ‘feedings,’ and I have this horrific image,” he says.
Word about the Delightful Feasts has spread; the number of people attending is about 150 and growing. All are treated as guests. Volunteers have begun serving them restaurant-style, waiting on them at tables often decorated with fresh flowers.
Setting the stage comes naturally to Daelucian. In June, he’ll earn a master’s degree in stage management at UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts. He also received bachelor’s degrees in drama and philosophy from UCI in 2012 and has applied to the USC master’s program in social work.
Hunger in a land of plenty
Daelucian started The Heart of Delight after encountering homeless people during a visit to the Santa Ana Civic Center on routine business.
“Before that, I’d see them on TV, in documentaries about poverty all around the world,” he says. “It never struck me that we have a homeless problem right here on our doorstep, in Orange County, one of the richest counties in America. That’s when this fire was kindled within me to do something about it.”
Daelucian immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam at age 9 and learned to cook from his mother. He tries to incorporate Vietnamese and other ethnic flavors into the Delightful Feast menu. He’s even prepared entire meals for events in his small Irvine condo.
“Every time we had to cook out of my kitchen, it was a mess we had to deal with for days,” Daelucian says, laughing. The Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana now lets the nonprofit use its industrial-size kitchen.
“We start out with the kind of food that people are comfortable with and build from there,” he says. “We’ll make potato and macaroni salads with healthy ingredients and no mayonnaise. We experiment with spices such as curry. We make beautiful, vibrant salads with tomato, romaine lettuce, carrots – it’s living food. It hasn’t been on the burner for hours on end.”
Big heart, big plans
Daelucian hopes to do much more than put food on the table. He’s adding a mobile shower, cellular service, and information on legal assistance and medical insurance. He’s also working to establish a shelter for the homeless.
“We want to feed people, but we want to go beyond that. We want to get them on a rising trajectory, to get them out of homelessness and lift them above these conditions,” he says. “You have to address their immediate needs, to enable people to survive, but you also have to have a long-term goal of getting people into housing.”
Fundraising has proven his greatest challenge, says Daelucian, who, in addition to serving as The Heart of Delight’s president and CEO, works full time for a Web design firm in Irvine.
“A lot of it comes out of my own pocket, and my pockets aren’t deep,” he notes. “But I’d rather not do it than make concessions or take shortcuts. That’s why I have to pull in whatever resources I can.”
He’s already partnered with other nonprofits for the Delightful Feasts. Volunteers from high school clubs and other student organizations have helped cook and wait tables.
And because many homeless people have pets, the Animal Assistance League of Orange County in Midway City has distributed pet food and supplies at the events. (Daelucian adopted his rescue dog, Lucius, from the league.)
Extending his outreach
This fall, The Heart of Delight will travel to Mexico to help renovate a children’s orphanage, and in December members will go to a small village in Vietnam to build infrastructure and provide basic services.
Daelucian’s long-range plan includes developing an ecological cooperative where residents live together and grow their own food in a communal garden, develop skills in a technology center, and have access to on-site day care and holistic health care.
With his theater background, he’s also working to expose clients to the arts, staging an annual A Rising Community event that combines a Delightful Feast with live entertainment such as music, theater, dance or hands-on art.
“To live and exist is to help one another. It ought to be the ultimate goal,” Daelucian says. “People have to look inside themselves and decide that this is the world we want to have.”