Cynthia Addison arrived at the St. Vincent de Paul dining hall off Government Street at 8 a.m. Thursday to claim a spot at the front of the line for Thanksgiving dinner. The 76-year-old Baton Rouge resident said her legs “were about to give way” when the doors finally opened three hours later.
Addison, a former employee of the East Baton Rouge Parish schools lunch program, has volunteered at the annual Holiday Helpers Thanksgiving luncheon at the River Center in the past — but this year, she found herself in need of help. She has an eye condition that recently forced her to undergo radiation treatment and to buy a special pair of $800 glasses.
When the doors opened shortly after 11 a.m., a smiling Addison led a long line of people into the dining room, where about 150 volunteers led them to tables and served them plates of turkey, vegetables and dessert.
“When you don’t have money to get turkey and you want food and be able to eat, I’m happy to come,” Addison said.
St. Vincent de Paul usually serves between 500 and 600 meals on Thanksgiving, said Michael Acaldo, executive director of the organization. Besides getting a plate of hot food, people also had a chance to pick out socks, hats, blankets and other items to keep them warm as winter approaches.
“I think it means the world to them,” Acaldo said. “It’s something that they’re very thankful for, and I think they’re thankful for all the people in the community that come out and try to help them in this way.”
Hayward Miles, one of the first people to be served, said he’s glad St. Vincent de Paul offers a place to eat on Thanksgiving.
“This is very important to the community, to the homeless and to everyone,” he said. “I’m very grateful and thankful. I thank God I can be part of this.”
Some people came to the luncheon in search of a way to give back to the community. Volunteering “keeps you real humble,” said David Reid, a driver for Bellelo’s Furniture who has worked at the luncheon for eight years.
He first came to volunteer at St. Vincent de Paul after he got a raise at his job at a plant and decided to help others who were not as lucky. While handing out socks and other supplies, Reid noticed another volunteer sitting in her car. When he asked her why she wasn’t helping, she told him she had seen her uncle in line.
“Right then and there, I knew I not only touched the people we see but a lot of people around us,” Reid said. “You have to step outside your circle. … When you go home to a house, these people may not.”
Across town, St. Paul Catholic Church served meals to dozens of Catholic Charities clients. Among them were three refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said Carol Spruell, communications coordinator with Catholic Charities.
“It was their first Thanksgiving ever in the United States,” she said. “They didn’t even know what Thanksgiving was.”
One of the refugees spent several months in a refugee camp before coming to the U.S., so being able to welcome them with a holiday meal was a special experience, Spruell said.
At the River Center downtown, volunteers served about 1,200 meals to people attending Holiday Helpers’ annual Thanksgiving luncheon, said Baton Rouge Constable Reginald Brown, president of the organization.
Chantel Patterson and Denise Wheeler, officers of the Ladies of Velvet Touch club, were taking a break after helping serve meals.
“Giving back to the community is positive, something more people should get involved in doing,” Patterson said. “It’s important throughout the year but even more so around the holidays. You may be giving a hot meal to someone who may not otherwise have it.”
Among those who came to the Holiday Helpers event were sisters Ericka and Stella Williams and their young children. Both recently moved into new apartments. Stella Williams doesn’t have a stove to cook on yet, and Ericka Williams said money is tight after her move.
“It’s so many people out there that don’t have a place to eat,” Stella Williams said. “It’s important to let them know that somebody actually cares.”
Ericka Williams said many of her relatives and friends invited her to eat with them on Thanksgiving when they found out she couldn’t afford to cook a meal of her own. She was planning to go to at least two more gatherings Thursday after she left the River Center.
Ericka Williams, 34, who recently opened a catering business called Monique’s Cafe, is hoping to get back on her feet soon and cook Christmas dinner herself next month. She wants to invite all the people who have helped her.
“It’s been hard, but it’s all going to come together,” Ericka Williams said. “I’m going to keep the faith and be praying.”