At 25 years and counting, the annual Bea Gaddy Thanksgiving dinner feeds tens of thousands at a city recreation center and with food to go

`Her work is being done'

November 24, 2006|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,Sun reporter

Propped up on her aunt's lap, 1--year-old Kayla Boblett was in heaven when she dipped her tiny fingers into a pool of mashed potatoes, retrieved a sufficient glob and stuck it into her mouth. She then used her fork to spear a chuck of gravy-soaked turkey.

She was in her own world and wasn't paying attention to the hundreds of people around her eating, serving up meals and giving thanks yesterday at the annual Bea Gaddy Thanksgiving dinner at the Patterson Park Recreation Center.

"Mashed potatoes, that's her favorite," said her aunt Donna White of Dundalk. Kayla was busy chewing on turkey this time. Her brown ringlets, cropped tightly around her face, bounced with each bite.

White's husband, Charles McCoy, was busy finishing off a slice of cherry-topped cheesecake.

"Everything is done to perfection," he said. "It is a meal to die for."

Yesterday, organizers said they expected to serve 35,000 meals. The feeding was not restricted to the center. Meals were delivered to senior citizen homes and other food-distribution centers throughout the area.

The dinner has come a long way since it was started in Bea Gaddy's home 25 years ago. Gaddy, a city councilwoman and advocate for the region's poor, used $290 she had won in the lottery to feed 38 people that year, said organizer Sandra Briggs, one of Gaddy's daughters. Gaddy, who has been called Baltimore's Mother Teresa, died of breast cancer in 2001. She was 68.

Since that first meal, the dinner has blossomed into an expansive event where visitors can also collect blankets, clothes and food to take home. There is also an area where blood can be donated.

"It's one-stop shopping," Briggs said.

Briggs said preparation for the day starts each Jan. 1, but the majority of the work is done in the days leading up to Thanksgiving.

Volunteers started to assemble at 5 a.m. Wednesday to start preparing meals in the kitchen of St. Elizabeth's Roman Catholic Church. This included cutting up 100,000 pounds of cooked turkey meat prepared by state prison inmates in Hagerstown and portioning vegetables prepared by a culinary arts school in Baltimore.

Cynthia Brooks, another of Gaddy's daughters and an organizer, said the day's efforts cost close to $100,000.

Volunteers and donations were the key. NBA basketball player Carmelo Anthony donated 4,000 boxes of food, each containing five days' worth of meals, which the diners could take home.

"Whether you gave one can of food, a frozen turkey or thousands of dollars, what you are doing is making a difference," Brooks said as she admired a room of hundreds of volunteers. "Look at what happened when one person decided to help."

Seven years ago, Darlene Adams Byrd was the person in need of help. She was homeless and out of work, and her outlook was bleak.

"I used to be out there," Adams Byrd said. Then she met Gaddy. "She gave me hope. Now my life is better."

Adams Byrd, now a housekeeper for the Johns Hopkins University, said she has volunteered at the dinner for the past six years and will continue to do so.

Renee Smith, a Baltimore EMT andfirefighter, showed up to serve food at 7 a.m., right after working an eight-hour shift.

"Working with the Fire Department, I come across a lot of homeless people," Smith said. "Instead of helping one person at a time, I get to help a lot of people at once" at the dinner.

Smith brought her 13-year-old son, Dereck Toomer, so that he could better appreciate his life.

"I wanted to show him that there are families out there who do not have [what he has]," she said. "I wanted to show him that we do have blessings."

Gale Patillo-Perry of Baltimore said she will encourage her co-workers at the Motor Vehicle Administration to volunteer with her next year.

"So many people talk the talk," said the first-year volunteer. "Today I am going to walk the walk. Hopefully, with my influence, they will come next year."

Jo Blackstone of Gambrills volunteered at the dinner for the first time yesterday after meaning to do so for several years. "Things kept coming up," Blackstone said. "I have come to the realization that there is nothing more pressing than this."

An hour into dishing out turkey, Adams Byrd took a few moments to walk around the tables and hug the food recipients.

"I'm happy," said Adams Byrd, who proudly told the people her story and how she has turned her life around. "I'm really enjoying this.

"I almost brought that mother and daughter to tears," Adams Byrd said as she pointed into a sea of people. "I told them, `God bless you; I've been there, too.' Now I can go home and have a good Thanksgiving dinner with my family."

A few tables away from Adams Byrd, White and Kayla were finishing the last morsels from their plate.

"Bea Gaddy may be dead, but because of what she began, a lot of people are being fed," White said. "It's like she is still here. Her work is being done."

Minutes later, White was wearing her winter coat and was heading out the door with her husband and Kayla. A well-fed Kayla was secured in a stroller. McCoy clutched a bag of food.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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