Tracy Crawford, a single mother of four, can't remember the last time she ventured into a restaurant, let alone had a gourmet meal prepared by a celebrity chef.
Crawford's luck changed last week when she and more than 100 other needy residents were treated to a sit-down dinner prepared by chef Jude Mouton and served by local Muslims at the newly opened Weed and Seed community center in Pomona.
"It was really wonderful," she said, finishing off a plate of honey-smoked barbecue chicken and Louisiana dirty rice. "The city needs events like this to bring the community together."
Responding to President Barack Obama's challenge to all Americans "to help lay a new foundation for growth in this country by engaging in sustained, meaningful community service," Faiyaz Farouk of Diamond Bar and his friend Dr. Faisal Qazi of Chino Hills decided to host a dinner for the less fortunate.
"We didn't want to just distribute boxes of food but instead we wanted to serve people with dignity and respect," Qazi said. "Just because you're poor, you don't always have to get a handout. We didn't want it to be just convenient, we wanted to make an effort. Service to the people is the commitment that binds our faith and responsibility to the nation."
The group of good samaritans got what they asked for - chef Mouton, whose roster of clients includes Shaquille O'Neal and P. Diddy, started smoking the meat at 4 a.m. on Tuesday morning. He hung up his apron at 7 p.m. when all meals were dished out.
"We all pitched in to make the event possible," said Mouton, who once owned "Gumboz," a Creole restaurant in Pomona. "I just feel good to give back to the city."
Qazi, Farouk and other Muslim volunteers were still fasting while serving the needy, in observance of the holy month of Ramadan during which Muslims across the world refrain from eating, drinking and smoking from dawn to dusk.
"I'm very happy," Qazi said. "This was very inspirational. We created a bond with the families."
The event was not about proselytizing - "serving a meal with one hand and handing them a copy of the Quran with the other," he said. "No one knew why we were doing this."
Pomona Mayor Elliott Rothman also pitched in, bringing with him 60 backpacks filled with school supplies which were handed out to children as they were leaving.
"I'm grateful to the Muslim community for celebrating Ramadan with us, a month that embodies the spirit of charity," Rothman said. "This was a first big event at our new community center and people liked it. It was a hit."
Armando Lopez, Weed and Seed site director, said he'd like to welcome other groups who are willing to make a positive difference in lives of others.
The center opened less than two months ago and is trying to forge partnerships with nonprofit organizations that would "provide resources to the community and keep the place open."
Lopez said he has put out a request for proposals, but did not get any serious inquiries just yet - some considered it a bit too challenging.
It took the group of friends just two weeks to put the whole event together, Farouk said.
"I want others to feel empowered to do the same charity work, there's no need to have an organization behind it," he said. "Anyone with a passion for service can help others in need."