Free Thanksgiving feasts serve up reasons for needy to give thanks

November 25, 1994|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Sun Staff Writer

A last-minute outpouring of food and donations saved the day yesterday for Bea Gaddy's free Thanksgiving feast, the largest of several such meals served by volunteer groups around Baltimore.

Yesterday morning, Ms. Gaddy said an army of 3,500 volunteers was ready to dish up dinner for as many as 30,000 people.

By 3 p.m. yesterday, organizers said about 20,000 people had been served at East Baltimore's Dunbar High School, and several thousand additional meals had been delivered to shut-ins or served at three other sites.

And about 9:30 last night, a tired, but obviously pleased Ms. Gaddy said 29,253 meals had been served.

"We still have 172 turkeys left to give out," she said. "Baltimore came together for this. I'm so grateful."

Earlier this month, Ms. Gaddy -- whose work in serving the poor has exploded in both numbers and fame in recent years -- said donations were down this year because of news reports of poor recordkeeping and an IRS audit.

Last year, by mid-November, she had collected more than $36,600 for her Thanksgiving feast. This year, she had raised only half that much.

But she said yesterday that in the past few days, an outpouring of donations enabled her to pay a $10,000 gas and electric bill that had been allowed to slide since June, and at the end of the day there was enough food left over to allow those still waiting in line to take home turkeys and trays of leftovers.

"We were begging and begging for food -- and now we can just give people a turkey," she marveled.

Ms. Gaddy was also beaming about having signed a contract authorizing a movie of her life story, but she declined to discuss details.

So large has her Thanksgiving effort become that in the past couple of years that national television networks have covered the event.

For many people, she said, circumstances are "twice worse than it was last year," and she recognized among this year's diners several volunteers from better times past.

A free meal helps people for one day, she said, but added, "They will have to be back in somebody's line again Monday morning."

During yesterday's feast, Curtis Jones of Baltimore said he was enjoying his meal with his wife, Novack, and their children, Yvonne, 9, and Curtis, 7.

"This is a blessing," Mr. Jones said. "I thought we were the only ones . . ."

In what could be described only as productive chaos, Ms. Gaddy seemed to be everywhere at once, doing crisis management on her feet.

Surrounded by a knot of assistants, she fielded questions and fired off orders.

She dispatched volunteers to wrap leftovers, shepherded stragglers out of the kitchen, organized a ride home for an elderly woman and paused to have her photograph taken with a boot camp inmate on cleanup duty. Her rounds were punctuated with hugs from volunteers and diners.

Once, she snatched a bite of food.

She had gone to bed at 1 a.m. yesterday, she said, and was up again at 5 a.m. to marshal the troops.

"I'll sleep tomorrow," she said.

Elsewhere in the room, one of Santa's helpers, Wayne McCrea, a Kris Kringle look-alike in a red suit and bushy white beard, cruised the tables handing out fruit roll-ups to children.

He recalled a girl who sat on his lap last year at the feast.

"All she wanted was for her father to come home," he said. "What can you say? 'No problem, I've got it right here in my bag'?"

Outside, in clown garb, Charlie Levine and members of his volunteer Clown Corps entertained people waiting in line. They handed out coloring books and crayons, shook hands and dispensed hugs.

"Just make them smile, that's it, which sometimes is more than what all the money in the world can do," he said. "A hug goes a long way."

Ms. Gaddy's feast wasn't the only effort going on yesterday to help the needy. And for some, yesterday's free meals were not a holiday celebration, but a matter of day-to-day survival.

"Me, myself, I'm just looking for something to eat," said Linda Lee of Baltimore, who had collected a plate of turkey from a street preacher on North Avenue and was waiting outside Fat Boy's Bar-B-Que, where volunteers were to serve a free take-out meal of ham and turkey.

It was the second year that Charles Shepperson of Fat Boy's teamed up with Rosalyn Williams, owner of 4B's Florist next door, and several sponsors to serve a meal for those in need in their neighborhood who couldn't make it to other meals.

"If you can't fix dinner, how are you going to get across town?" Ms. Williams asked.

Last year, they served 900 people. Yesterday, they were prepared with about 130 turkeys, along with ham, sauerkraut, vegetables, bread and beverages. Ms. Williams said she and her children, Sasha, 9, and Carlotta, 17, were up until 5 a.m. yesterday opening cans and filling little cups with cranberry sauce.

"When it started snowing, I freaked completely out," she said, but she had no reason to fear a poor turnout. A line was already waiting when the take-out window opened about 2:20 p.m.

"People appreciate it," she said, adding that a man who had come for Thanksgiving dinner last year returned in March with a $5 donation.

"He remembered months later and came back," she said. "That's what really makes it worthwhile."

Ms. Williams said she and her volunteers plan to serve another free meal for Christmas.

Earlier yesterday, the Loch Raven Optimists and the staff of Manna House served breakfast to about 300 people at Lovely Lane United Methodist Church. JP Foodservice donated most of the food.

"There's not much to coordinate any more," said Manna House Executive Director Esther R. Reaves. "It just sort of happens."

She said her organization serves breakfast to about 200 people every day, with two paid staffers and three or four volunteers.

"People are hungry all year round," she said. "They don't just get hungry on Thanksgiving."

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