At Bea Gaddy's Patterson Park Emergency Food Center, there's no doubting what holiday is coming.
Raw turkeys line the tables, defrosting in pots of cold water. Pans of cooked, sliced turkey cover every inch of counter space. In the freezers are more full pans, along with thousands of individual portions of cranberry sauce. Most of the floor space is covered with grocery bags stuffed with instant mashed potato flakes and stuffing mix. Upstairs are two rooms with cases and cases of canned vegetables piled up.
Bea Gaddy is expecting 17,000 guests for dinner tomorrow, but she's as cool as a cucumber.
"It's going to be put together so well, there's nothing to be concerned about," she said yesterday evening as the controlled chaos that had been building all day at her Collington Avenue row house settled into a low rumble. "Organization is the secret, and that's why I'm not overly tired. Because I've given out so much to so many to take care of."
But when someone asked her why she wasn't bubbling with excitement, the weariness of putting together such a massive enterprise came through.
"We are beginning, we are just beginning," she sighed. "Let us get it over. Then we'll bubble."
On the other hand, she's still not turning away any guests.
"Those rich folks who don't want to eat by themselves, you just tell them to call Bea," she told a volunteer who was dropping off cases of canned food.
So there may be a few rich folks taking advantage of the fourth annual "Bea Gaddy Thanks for Giving Campaign" tomorrow, but mostly it will be the constituency she has catered to since she served her first Thanksgiving dinner 10 years ago: the poor, the homeless, the needy, the unwanted.
Tomorrow's dinner will be served from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. in a huge (100 feet by 40 feet) tent that was erected yesterday at the Dunbar High School complex in the 1400 block of Orleans Street. Ms. Gaddy and her associates will also be delivering about 6,000 prepacked baskets to groups in housing projects and the ill and elderly who are unable to get out for a meal.
Bea Gaddy, 57, has come a long way from Thanksgiving 1981, when she used $290 she had won on a 50-cent lottery ticket to feed 39 people who couldn't afford a Thanksgiving dinner. She ** knew what it meant to be poor and hungry. She'd been there herself many times -- as a child in North Carolina, deserted by her father, abused by her stepfather; then as a widow with five children. She turned her own hunger into a drive to feed others and willpower and force of character got her where she is now.
These days she is a leader in the struggle to provide for the poor, taking her mission to the ballot box this year in an unsuccessful campaign for City Council, expanding her efforts with a shelter for homeless women that opened recently. National publicity has brought her widespread recognition and there's even talk about making a TV movie about her life, she said, laughing as she often does when tickled by the absurdities of life.
And since 1981 her Thanksgiving largess has snowballed. In 1988 she moved into a new phase when WQSR-FM Radio broadcast pleas for donations, and contributions were enough to feed 2,500 people. Last year she served 9,412. This year's
escalation came with sponsorship from Perdue Poultry and Leedmark, the new everything-under-one-roof shopping complex in Glen Burnie.
But the large corporate sponsors are really just the tip of the iceberg. Because more than 500 individual volunteers and donations from 50 area businesses are the backbone of this effort, which by anybody's guess is the biggest Thanksgiving dinner in the world. All the food is either donated or purchased with donated funds.
One of the major groups of contributors to this year's Thanksgiving dinner is inmates from the Maryland prison system. More than 1,000 turkeys have been roasted and sliced by prisoner-volunteers at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown and the Baltimore Pre-Release Center. Then the meat was frozen in special refrigerator trucks provided by Leedmark.
Inmates are also making gallons of gravy, and mixing up bushels of mashed potatoes and stuffing. "The inmates wanted to get involved," said Susan Kafkie, public affairs officer for the Maryland Division of Correction. "Some of the correctional officers who had known Bea had volunteered their help, and when prisoners heard about it, they wanted to take the opportunity to make their contribution to the community."
Paper plates and plastic utensils are being donated by manufacturers. Area bakers will fill the bread baskets. Coffee will be brewed back at Collington Avenue, just a short distance from the Dunbar School site. The city is providing huge gas burners so that pots of vegetables, potatoes and stuffing can be heated on site.
And, of course, there will be dessert. In addition to the variety of sweets that have been donated by individuals, hundreds of pumpkin pies are being donated by schools throughout the Baltimore area.
If you are interested in donating time, money or products, contact Bea Gaddy's Patterson Park Emergency Food Center, 140 N. Collington Ave., (410) 563-2749.