Sharing Bea's legacy

In hard times, more people gather for free Thanksgiving meal, and more volunteer

November 28, 2008|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,arin.gencer@baltsun.com

Little more than a week after an electrical fire destroyed the women's shelter at the Bea Gaddy Family Center, Executive Director Cynthia Brooks was flush with reasons to be thankful.

She and siblings John Fowler and Sandra E. Briggs were counting their blessings yesterday as they prepared to start the annual Thanksgiving dinner at Patterson Park Recreation Center that is part of their mother's legacy.

They were thankful for the friends who took over paying for the center's gas and electricity bill after it had climbed to $6,000 and the power was about to be shut off.

And for the various contractors who walked into the building, ravaged by fire earlier this month, and restored it so that 48 hours later the damage was largely a memory.

And for the hundreds of volunteers who left their homes yesterday morning knowing their Thanksgiving meals would later be on the table - and wanting to ensure that the less fortunate had theirs.

"I have so much to be thankful for," said Brooks, dressed in red, as she addressed those poised to serve the people in a long line that snaked around the building. "I could stay here the rest of the day just naming people that made this day a success."

She stood in a gym transformed into a dining hall, where red- and white-decked tables were surrounded by others laden with food: turkey and stuffing, corn and mashed potatoes, cake and pie.

In the far corners of the room sat piles of plastic bags stuffed with whole turkeys or canned and dry goods, meant to feed those coming through in the days ahead.

For many, the dinner was a first. Spurred by dire economic times or just curiosity, the newcomers quickly embraced the warm, festive atmosphere surrounding the dinner, which the late Councilwoman Gaddy began serving in 1981. Gaddy died in 2001, but her children have continued the annual event.

"It's not just about eating here. It's about family, rejoicing," said Terrie Moore, a first-timer.

Next to her, Omeria Lewis handed her plate to a passing volunteer carrying a trash bag. "I can't do any more," she said, smiling. She placed her square of cake in a zip-top bag, for later.

Lewis, who was attending her fourth Bea Gaddy dinner and has turned to the center for help before, had dragged Moore to the dinner. She also had the other neighbors on their Patterson Park-area block in mind, Lewis said, with plans to cook the whole turkey she would receive and pass it around.

"I had to come here so I won't let them down," she said.

Outside, Teresa Smith of Walbrook Junction was marveling at the crowd, having asked her husband to hold a place in the line - one of the longest the organizers have seen in many years.

"Times are hard," said Smith, whose husband was laid off three months ago. They've sought churches' assistance in paying their bills, she said. "I've been struggling so hard."

Jillene Smith, also of Walbrook Junction but not related to Teresa, said she decided to come after seeing news reports about the event yesterday morning. She was recently laid off, she said, and her unemployment benefits haven't come in yet. When she heard the event offered household goods along with the hot meal, she decided to drop by, she said.

The charity served about 70,000 meals yesterday, Brooks said.

"With the economy the way that it is going, we are having to help the people that normally used to help us," she said.

Recognition of that greater need drew veterans and novices to the brigade of helpers.

"I had a wonderful year, and I wanted to give back," said Jennifer Brown, 28, of Lansdowne. She and Dwayne Briggs, 26, stood waiting for a task, as did a number of others in a waiting room designated for volunteers.

"I always wanted to do this when I was a kid," said Briggs, who lives in Baltimore. When a friend sent him a message about the event, he passed the word on to Brown.

Brown said she was struck not just by the numbers of the needy but by their diversity.

"It's families, it's pregnant women," she said. "I saw young, I saw old. ... It's sad."

Bill Gross has volunteered at the dinner for about a decade, his hand readily heaping helpings of hot food onto people's plates. But this year, he woke up in his "nice, warm" bed feeling he needed to do more - which is what brought him out into the cold at 7 a.m., unloading trucks filled with items to be distributed.

Gross, of Northeast Baltimore, said it seems as if the volunteers increase each year, as people "go home from this experience and tell their friends how blessed" they've been, then bring those friends with them the next year.

"It's a great thing," the Northrop Grumman draftsman said as he manned one of the fashion tents outside, where people could look through and select clothing. "You start thinking about what Thanksgiving is all about, and you realize that you have to give back."

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