Charities feed thousands on holiday

Many diners say they are grateful for sharing in Thanksgiving tradition

November 28, 2003|By Jason Song and Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Jason Song and Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

Sean Conner smiled faintly yesterday as his 6-month-old daughter, Jocelyn, let a small spoonful of mashed potatoes dribble off her lower lip.

Conner, a pizza deliveryman from Clifton Park who brought his wife, Christina, and Jocelyn to the memorial Bea Gaddy dinner in Patterson Park Recreation Center, had worried that his family wouldn't have a traditional turkey dinner this Thanksgiving -- Jocelyn's first.

But Conner got a heaping plate of mashed potatoes, turkey and gravy yesterday, and his daughter got her first taste of Thanksgiving.

"At least she'll learn early what Thanksgiving is about," Conner said. "We couldn't afford to buy her a turkey and all that other stuff."

Conner was one of thousands of people who attended charitable dinners yesterday across the Baltimore region. For many, it was a chance to get a welcome hot meal, make new friends and catch up with old ones.

"This is our family," said Pearl Wallace, 44, who has come to the Church of the Messiah on Harford Road for dinner for the past nine years.

The biggest local event was the annual Bea Gaddy dinner, where volunteers cooked nearly 100,000 pounds of turkey and served about 40,000 people, said Sandra Briggs, one of Gaddy's daughters.

An advocate for the region's poor, Gaddy held charitable Thanksgiving dinners for two decades. The memorial event was the third since the city councilwoman died. Briggs said she "had a moment" early in the morning when she broke down and cried, but "we're too busy to stay sad for long."

Briggs said that she and other organizers started planning and seeking donations too late this year. At one point, Briggs worried that they would not have enough contributions to give diners canned and frozen food to take home after their meal.

Organizers did scrape together enough to give everyone bags of macaroni and cheese and frozen turkeys. But "we're going to start earlier next year," Briggs said.

The meal represented a lifeline for many. "I really need a meal," said Wayne Walker, 42, who has been homeless for about two months since losing his job as a housecleaner.

Walker paused to accept a piece of cake from a passing volunteer. "I've hit some hard times so I need this," he said.

While Conner said he makes enough to support his family, extras like turkeys, cranberries and stuffing are beyond his budget. "Thanksgiving isn't really possible for us," he said.

Conner said he has been to the Bea Gaddy dinner three times. This year was especially difficult because "all of the extra money goes to the baby," he said.

Jocelyn, who lay in her mother's arms and gnawed on her food with her only two teeth, cooed at her father, and he smiled again.

"Each year, we hope that we can do it on our own next year. Maybe it will be different next year," he said.

But others said they had no desire to eat anywhere else. Wallace, who was eating at the Church of Messiah, moved to the United States 23 years ago from her native Trinidad. Her first Thanksgivings were lonely experiences. "I just stayed home," she said. "I didn't know what to do."

Wallace began spending her Thanksgivings at the church after she heard about the event. Yesterday, she spent as much time chatting with volunteers and fellow diners as eating. "I'm an American, and it's important to celebrate," she said.

The day was also important to the volunteers who served the food and washed the dishes. Kim McCartney of Millersville brought her two young children to the church. "I want them to know if we don't help each other, the world turns into a mess," she said.

While most feasted on traditional Thanksgiving fare yesterday, some received a twist on the traditional menu.

Ten members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Animal Awareness demonstrated at lunchtime yesterday at East Pratt and Light streets, carrying signs and handing out "tofurkeys" -- a soy-based roast filled with vegetarian stuffing.

"We want everybody to have a happy Thanksgiving -- and that means the turkeys as well," explained William R. Rivas-Rivas, coordinator of the event.

In one hour, the group gave away about 40 tofurkeys to puzzled onlookers. But for Ronald Mitchell, an unemployed 54-year-old from West Baltimore, the roast offered new possibilities.

"I'll try anything different," said Mitchell.

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