Few people have been kinder to the disadvantaged of St. Tammany Parish than the good members of the Covington Rotary Club, who will host the 17th annual Feeding the Needy event this Christmas.
So it makes perfect sense that Gayle Benson, the warm and generous owner of the New Orleans Saints and the New Orleans Pelicans, will be the featured speaker at a luncheon to raise money to help Rotarians stage Feeding the Needy.
The luncheon will be held Nov. 20 from 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. at the Briggs Assembly Center on the St. Paul’s School campus in downtown Covington. Hundreds of people are sure to attend, but as Rotary volunteers would say when serving hot holiday dinners to the poor on Christmas morning — “There’s always room for one more.”
A bit more on that later, but let’s first talk about “Miss Gayle" — the name many people in southeast Louisiana have given the gracious owner of the Crescent City’s two professional sports franchises.
Benson has used her position as one of the South’s most important business leaders to advance philanthropic causes dear to her, especially faith-based and spiritual endeavors. She has served on the Archbishop of New Orleans Community Appeal campaign for 20 years and has worked tirelessly with nonprofits beneath the Archdiocese of New Orleans Catholic Charities umbrella.
Benson also loaned her name, and donated a good sum of her fortune, to help establish the Gayle and Tom Benson Cancer Center at Ochsner Hospital’s main campus on the south shore. She serves on the board of directors at the hospital, as well as those at the Audubon Commission, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Catholic Foundation of the Archdiocese of New Orleans and Tulane University.
That kind of community involvement is sure to give Benson plenty to talk about when she’s in Covington on Nov. 20. She’ll likely have more than a few things to say about the Saints, as well. The team is off to one of the best starts in franchise history.
It’s sure to be a compelling speech, but serving the needs of others always has been the focus of Feeding the Needy.
John Baldwin and Craig Babylon founded the movement in 2002, following the example of Orleans Parish Sheriff Charles Foti, who used to have meals brought to Covington’s St. Peter’s Church where they then were distributed to the underprivileged in the area. Feeding the Needy helped fill the void when that program ended, and it soon far outgrew its predecessor in size and scale.
“We went to talk with Deacon Skip Graffagnini, who was running the (Covington) Food Bank at the time, and they were servicing about 60 to 65 families at the time,” Baldwin recalled. “(After some publicity about what we were doing,) we all of a sudden had 300 legitimate needy families applying for food.”
The days leading up to Christmas 2002 were a whirlwind for Feeding the Needy volunteers. Space inside Covington ovens and coolers was at a premium, but Baldwin, Babylon and company fed everyone on their list come Christmas morning.
“We had determined we weren’t going to turn anyone down, and we didn’t,” Baldwin said. “It all came together.”
These days, the cooking is done off-site, but the assembly line to pack the boxes for delivery still is done at St. Paul’s on Dec. 23 and 24. There will be the traditional turkey inside each, of course, but also all the trimmings and side dishes that go with a typical holiday meal.
At 7:30 on Christmas morning, hot coffee and doughnuts will be waiting for another group of volunteers ready to deliver meals throughout St. Tammany and Washington parishes. Just before 8 a.m., a list of addresses will be given to each driver, and Baldwin will thank everyone for their dedication and assistance. They’ll join hands, say a short prayer and motor off with cars and trucks and vans filled with warm food and good tidings.
And by 8:30 a.m., St. Paul’s will be silent once again.
“It’s just awesome,” Baldwin said of the effort that fed more than 6,000 people last year. “It brings families together. People reconnect. Good will come out of it.”
There are numerous ways to assist the Covington Rotary Club and Feeding the Needy, but it starts with your purchase of a ticket to the fundraising luncheon on Nov. 20. And time is ticking, because organizers need to get a proper head count to the event caterer.
Individual tickets cost $100, and a table of eight costs $1,000. Various levels of sponsorship are available, and the donation certainly will go to a good cause.
For more information or to purchase tickets, go online to www.covrotary.org or call (985) 778-1797.