A last-minute rush of volunteers and food keeps alive Bea Gaddy's legacy and Thanksgiving tradition of serving those in need in the city

Thankful for a helping hand

November 25, 2005|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

In the basement of St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church, about two dozen volunteers wearing name tags, gloves and hairnets did what no one else at the annual Bea Gaddy Thanksgiving dinner wanted to do.

Leg by leg, wing by wing, they tore the dark meat off of several hundred turkeys - enough birds to fill two, 26-foot U-Hauls. The cold meat numbed their hands, and after three hours of dividing, ripping and twisting the slippery meat, their fingers had become sore.

"This is the heartbeat of the operation," said Dereck Bowden, 47, as he thrust his hands into a 10-gallon pot of stuffing in the adjacent kitchen. "We're not in the other building in front of all of the TV cameras. Someone has to do the real work."

Bea Gaddy's legacy is this Thanksgiving dinner in Baltimore, and four years after her death from breast cancer at age 68, the 24-year effort had seemed on the verge of collapse. Last week, Gaddy's children, friends and others publicly pleaded for help. They were desperately short of food and worried that they would have to turn people away, or give the needy less than they expected.

The community responded, pouring in more donations than Gaddy had ever received while living, said her daughter, Cynthia Campbell. The homeless walked away with several bags of food and toiletries. Some looked as if they were leaving a grocery store.

"This is more than we ever expected," said Campbell, wearing her mother's signature red and white colors. "Mom would be proud."

Campbell put her uncle, Mottie Fowler, in charge of the kitchen.

Known as Chef Pops, Pops or Uncle Mottie, he has a weathered face and silver sideburns that stick out from under his white chef's hat. Despite responsibility for feeding thousands of homeless and needy people yesterday, Fowler acts as if he's sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch back home in Rockingham, N.C.

However, if his younger sister had been there, things would have been different. Gaddy would have been yelling a few orders, and Fowler might not have needed to make the trip.

"My niece called for me a few months ago, and said that I had to come in and help her," said Fowler, 74. "She was desperate. She's very demanding, you know."

Before Campbell arrived, a line of volunteers already had formed outside the Patterson Park Recreation Center, where the meal was served, she said. Prospective volunteers who came just a few hours late were turned away. The gym, stocking rooms, greeting and serving tables were already filled with more than enough help.

But what the organizers at the door didn't know was that across the street, the self-proclaimed "turkey-strippers" were in need of assistance. The kitchen crew had started about 7 a.m. They cooked green beans, yams, stuffing and corn. The turkeys arrived cooked, but volunteers needed to slice the white meat and pull the dark meat from the bone.

Early-arrivers carved the white meat. There were more volunteers than knives. But when the dark meat arrived, Jon Moore of Catonsville said, everyone fled.

"The white meat is the luxury job," said Moore, 35, who stood on cardboard with other volunteers to avoid slipping on the wooden floor of the church basement, which was covered with small pieces of turkey and slicked with fat that had fallen off as pickers threw the bones into garbage bags. There was enough scrap to fill two Dumpsters.

Moore worked next to his fiancee, Erin Straley, 28, and Jamie Morris, 25, of Frederick and Wayne Ridgeway, 50, of Millersville. By noon, the four were sharing inside jokes and creating their own turkey-picking lingo. They called newly arrived volunteers "fresh meat" and suggested that they would eat shrimp and crab cakes for dinner after spending hours "performing surgery" on the birds. Ridgeway joked that he had registered to be a greeter.

Julie Petti of Kingsville, who volunteered with her sister, husband and two daughters for the first time, was turned away at the recreation center, but then a greeter suggested that they check in with the kitchen crew across the street.

"When we walked in, everyone started clapping," Petti said. "They were so glad we were here."

Cheryl Rhames, 38, volunteered because she didn't "feel like sitting at home." She called the event "organized chaos," as she helped shuttle trays of food from the kitchen to folding tables on the dance floor.

When Ashley Fallston, 21, of Washington arrived with her boyfriend and his sister in the church kitchen about 1 p.m., she never expected that she'd get to cook. But within minutes, Bowden had another 40-gallon pot of stuffing sitting on a stool waiting to be kneaded.

"This is the epitome of getting your hands dirty," said Fallston. After bending over the pot for several minutes, she stood up, wiped the sweat off of her brow with her forearm and told her fellow volunteers, "I think we're about stuffed."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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