Food, hugs for needy

Turkey delivery a 20-year tradition

November 27, 2008|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Even before she puts her own turkey on the table today, Loretta Warfield will have served 50 Thanksgiving dinners.

For more than two decades, through donations and fundraisers at the W.R. Grace & Co. chemical plant where she works as a janitor, Warfield has collected fresh turkeys, white potatoes, bread, pies and countless canned goods for Curtis Bay-area families who might not otherwise be able to celebrate the holiday. She has fed well over 1,000 families this way.

"I've been doing this for so long, it's just a part of me," Warfield said. At 65, she has survived two bouts with lymphoma, neither of which kept her from a single holiday season. Her tradition has earned her the nickname "Bea Gaddy of Grace," after the more well-known Baltimore woman synonymous with feeding the poor on Thanksgiving.

On Tuesday, Warfield and a dozen volunteers from Grace delivered this year's bounty - with her usual side of hugs. She held the hands of teary mothers and grandmothers and promised to return at Christmastime with more food and presents for the children.

This year was harder than most, Warfield said. The economy has left some of her families evicted from their rental homes and others without a working phone number. As the deliveries were made, more neighbors than usual shyly asked how they, too, could get a meal.

The recipients are selected by a longtime secretary at Curtis Bay Elementary, Grace's partner school. The secretary culls the free-lunch lists and also recommends local seniors who might benefit from holiday help. Warfield tries to vary the families from year to year, but she keeps the same seniors, many of whom are raising grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

It takes two rooms at Grace's Curtis Bay plant to handle all of the food and toys. One room says "Loretta's Kids." It's filled with 75 bicycles, 97 fleece shirts, 109 coats, as well as hats, helmets, toys and still more food to be delivered Dec. 17, the second phase of Warfield's holiday project. The other room, on Tuesday, looked like a grocery store. Cardboard boxes, bulging with Thanksgiving fixings and neatly labeled with their destinations, covered folding tables. Underneath, fresh turkeys sat in foil pans.

By 3 p.m., with holiday music playing over a crackling radio station, Warfield was dispatching Grace employees to make deliveries. She instructed the drivers, including maintenance men from the plant and corporate leaders from Grace's headquarters in Columbia, to hug the families, just as she does.

Charles Burton, a senior technician, has been making these deliveries for 16 years. "I love helping her, plain and simple," he said.

Steve Ambrose, a maintenance worker who has helped out for five years, said, "Each year, I do more and more." Three years ago, Warfield convinced him to dress as Santa Claus to hand out Christmas deliveries. He does it every year now. "Hard to say no to her," Ambrose said.

For as long as she can remember, Warfield said, she has volunteered for one group or another. She still also does charity work for her church, New Psalmist Baptist on Old Frederick Road. She grew up in the Gilmor projects in West Baltimore, and when she was 12, her mother died during childbirth, leaving her father to raise five girls and a boy. She said her childhood gave her the ability to recognize when people need help.

Her two bouts with lymphoma only strengthened her resolve to help others. Through radiation nine years ago and chemotherapy last year, Warfield kept right on with her holiday project at Grace. "I would go and get my chemo and tell them, 'Let's go. I have to get back to my families,'" she said.

Warfield began working at Grace in 1987, and that same year she started her holiday help for Curtis Bay. The first few years, co-workers donated canned goods and money, and Warfield and her daughter, Loretta Warfield-Davis, now 38, wrapped everything at home and made most of the deliveries themselves.

The donations snowballed, and soon people began recognizing her for her work. About a decade ago, Warfield made a pitch to Grace's then-president and chief executive officer, Paul Norris, for financial support from the company. Every year since, the Grace Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the $2 billion international chemical company, has contributed $3,000. When he was mayor of Baltimore, Gov. Martin O'Malley declared March 2, 2001, "Loretta Warfield Day" to honor her charitable work. Last year, CNN filmed her making Thanksgiving deliveries.

This April, Warfield and her daughter traveled to a company leadership conference in Chantilly, Va., and she gave a presentation about her project. "Grown men were crying!" she said. Afterward, employees from as far away as Japan gave her checks and cash - including foreign currency. The Grace Foundation increased its contribution to $7,500.

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