As people around the world gathered around a dinner table with family and friends Easter Sunday, the less fortunate in Baton Rouge gathered with one another to smile, eat and laugh at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for an Easter dinner following morning church services.
In the dining hall, more than 650 people, including Courtnie Woods, 31, passed through in about 90 minutes as more than 100 volunteers served them a hot meal they may not have gotten anywhere else on a day some consider the holiest of the year.
Last year, 670 people showed up for the Easter meal.
“When you see people like this, even though they’re not blood, it makes them feel like they’re in a family,” said Woods, a New Orleans native who moved to Baton Rouge about 12 years ago to escape the violence in the Crescent City. “Most of the people here have been rejected by their families for one reason or another, so when we can come to a place like this, it gives us hope to not give up.”
Woods and others dined on ham, rice dressing, green beans, sweet potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, fruit and cakes donated by local businesses.
Planning for the Easter meal began about two weeks before Mardi Gras, and cooking began on Thursday when the first hams were placed into the ovens.
The food was prepared by volunteers, some of whom, like Bridget and Bryan Day, spent Easter Sunday at the dining hall with their children, ages 13, 12, 11 and 8.
Dressed in green and pink shirts, the couple and their four children served food, refilled drinks and cleaned tables.
“We just felt it was important to teach the children about service, especially on a day that’s about being grateful,” Bridget Day said.
Her four children attend St. Thomas More Catholic School, which Bridget Day said sometimes holds fundraisers to benefit the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Michael Acaldo, St. Vincent de Paul’s chief executive director, said he was extremely grateful for volunteers like the Day family.
“They’ve given up their day, some of them with families, to give their time and talents,” Acaldo said.
During lunch, Bishop Robert Muench, head of the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge, walked up to each table, offering kind words and blessings and talking to the children about the meaning of Easter.
He even helped a young boy peel his apple.
“We’re privileged to be able to give them a good meal and help them in the causes and needs they have,” Muench said. “They’re so grateful and wonderful.”
Lisa Brown, 42, appreciated their efforts.
“It’s a blessing to come and eat,” said Brown, of Baton Rouge, while surrounded by her young children and grandchildren.
She said to her, home is wherever she and her family are, so she was happy to enjoy the Easter meal with them at the St. Vincent de Paul dining hall.
But Brown’s seven children and grandchildren were more excited about the 400 Easter baskets that were given away outside than the food inside the dining hall, because Brown could not afford to buy baskets for each one.
“When we came through, they were clapping and saying, ‘We’re getting Easter baskets,’ ” Brown said.
After filling their stomachs and getting a sandwich with a bag of snacks for the night, people lined up at a station outside the dining hall where volunteers distributed Easter baskets, toiletries, T-shirts, blue jeans, shoes, hats and, for the young girls, Easter dresses.
All the items were new, except for a rack of clothing, and were donated by local businesses.
“That’s a business that had a choice,” Acaldo said of businesses that donated the items. “They could have … sold them, but they decided to do a greater good.”
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul also donated about 1,500 Easter baskets to people in the community.
The last stop for some before leaving the complex was a station featuring boxes of fresh produce like bright red bell peppers, yellow squash and green salad mix from local supermarkets that were free to take.
Acaldo acknowledged that most people who eat at St. Vincent de Paul live in a food desert — urban neighborhoods without access to stores selling fresh produce — so any time St. Vincent de Paul can offer fresh produce, it does so.
“When we get more of those fresh fruits and vegetables than we can use on a given day … we like to share it with our guests, which encourages them to go home and utilize those vegetables and fruit in a very, very positive way.”