With aprons on and plastic gloves covering willing hands, hundreds of volunteers turned out Thursday to serve lunch, and offer friendship, to hundreds of residents in need of both.
Standing in line with family at the Baton Rouge River Center, volunteer Tannesha Williams, 45, said it was their first time volunteering at the Holiday Helpers Thanksgiving dinner.
“We wanted to do it as a family,” she said. “We know we’re blessed, and we wanted to come out and give back.”
Family and co-workers joined her because they all feel thankful for what they have in life.
“You might not have as many zeros as you’d like in your bank account, but we’re still blessed,” she said with a laugh.
This is the 28th year the Thanksgiving dinner has been organized by Holiday Helpers Inc. The emphasis is connecting the guests with the volunteers, who were asked to serve their designated table and then sit down and talk with guests and enjoy the meal themselves.
“Everyone has value, but sometimes people may not feel that they are valued,” Williams said.
Reginald Brown, Baton Rouge City Constable and one of the event’s organizers for 28 years, said the luncheon could not happen without the volunteers who come every year to give of their time. A number of elected officials also show up, from Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden, who takes a spot in the back cleaning plates, to state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, serving meals.
The main goal, Brown said, is that people leave feeling better and happier than they did when they arrived.
“It makes a big difference for people to get out. They look forward to it,” he said. “It’s a win-win. I feel better here serving and being part of it than I would if I were at home. This is family.”
Some of the patrons may not get the chance to socialize much, they may be down on their luck, they may be elderly and live alone. The Holiday Helpers meal gives them a chance to enjoy the company of others.
“That’s what it’s all about. It’s just sitting and talking,” Brown said. “It makes a big difference.”
After 28 years, Brown said, it’s no longer a struggle to put on the event. In the early years, organizers worried about how they were going to come up with enough food, even dipping into their own bank accounts. Now, Brown said, businesses are on board every year to help, like Coca-Cola, which donates drinks every year, Flowers Bakeries, which donates the bread, and Hollywood Casino, which has donated the turkeys for the past five years.
That help definitely came in handy this year, with more than 1,300 meals served.
All the food left over from the event is brought to the St. Vincent de Paul dining hall, where a hot lunch is served every day of the year to those in need.
Thursday was no exception. Volunteers helped seat and serve 634 people at the dining hall.
“It was awesome. I think the service was very friendly,” said Deborah Lundy, 58. “Everybody just poured their heart into what they were doing.”
As in Thanksgiving dinners past, St. Vincent de Paul also set up an area just outside the dining hall where guests could choose to take home items like new blankets, winter coats, socks, new shoes and even fresh produce, as well as a brown bag lunch for later.
“It’s like you get to have Thanksgiving dinner and Black Friday shopping in one place,” Lundy joked.
For Ellis Martin, 37, the dinner was a chance to get something to eat and to not be alone on the holiday.
“I’ve been on hard times, and I really had nowhere to go,” Martin said. Not only was the food needed, he said, but he enjoys talking with new people, and the dinner at St. Vincent de Paul gave him a chance to do that.
“That’s what Thanksgiving is all about,” he said. “I find it amazing that families brought out their families to volunteer. It’s just beautiful.”
It was a busy day in what has been a busy year for St. Vincent de Paul, which is on track to set a record for the number of meals served.
“It’s really sad to see so many people in need,” said Michael Acaldo, CEO of the Baton Rouge Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Acaldo said they’ve seen more first-time visitors this year than in years past, as well as many more people suffering from mental illness.
“The people who really need shelter, they won’t because of mental illness,” Acaldo said. Although the organization tries to get people set up with medication and the stability of a place to sleep, some people’s mental illness won’t let them take that step.
“That’s a heart-breaking part of our work,” he said.
However, the kitchen, shelter and the rest of St. Vincent de Paul’s work carries on, and with the already cold weather hitting south Louisiana this season, donations are always welcome. They need disposable salt and pepper shakers, brown sugar, garlic powder, paper napkins, paper towels and other items to keep the kitchen running.
A full list of donation needs is available at www.svdpbr.org/GiveNow.aspx.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter @awold10.