On that Thanksgiving, we met Dorothy, a beautiful woman dressed in a red knit sweater dress whose eyes danced when she spoke. She loved bingo, and enjoyed playing with the kids. Unfortunately, Dorothy was one of only five residents playing that day. It seemed that most people had gone home to their families for Thanksgiving.
Year Two took us across the river to the Salvation Army. Dozens of families shared our enthusiasm to help, and eagerly donned faintly stained aprons from Thanksgivings past. We were assigned the jobs of "greeters," which meant that we'd meet the visitors at the door and guide them to a table set for the feast. After we took individual food orders, our job was to dash to the bountiful buffet and return with an overflowing plate of traditional goodies.
I will never forget Luther and Luther Jr., who touched my heart as they enjoyed turkey with all the fixings. The father had hit hard times and was enticed by the Salvation Army's offer to feed his family. His giggly toddler reminded us of the reality of the cycle of homelessness and hunger. We were blessed to meet Luther and several other visitors, but again the volunteers outnumbered those we had hoped to serve.
The next year took us to North Philadelphia and into the life of Vertell Tripline and her restaurant, Vertell's Family Restaurant & Open Pit, in the 5900 block of North Broad Street. She graciously opened her heart and restaurant to anyone needing a delicious meal on Thanksgiving.
She coordinated her efforts with the Mayor's Office, which helped her deliver flyers to those who might benefit from a free hot meal. The Mayor's Office predicted that 300 to 500 patrons would partake, so Tripline, a spiritual fireball made up of equal parts love and enthusiasm, started cooking.
We helped her whip up a dozen oversized bowls of mashed potatoes, carved an equal number of tasty turkeys, and prepared warming trays of cabbage, soulful stuffing, baby corn and string beans.
We opened the door many times, but almost exclusively to more volunteers eager to help. Fortunately, volunteers from AmeriCorps loaded their van with meals and delivered them to the homeless.
Last year, we stayed in New Jersey, heading down the Shore to Sister Jean Webster's Kitchen in Atlantic City. Sister Jean has run a successful soup kitchen for years, and to her many regulars Thanksgiving is just another day in her kitchen. Whether folding paper napkins, dishing out greens, or refilling tall glasses of lemonade, we found ways to lend a hand. There were many hungry people to serve, and again there was an abundance of volunteers.
This year, we are changing our routine. Instead of waiting for hungry patrons to find us, we are going in search of them. We plan to package mini-Thanksgiving feasts in individual servings, and deliver them to some hungry souls on the streets this Thanksgiving.
I often wonder why we continue this tradition. We volunteer throughout the year at the Youth Golf and Academics program, an after-school homework helper group that hasn't yet suffered from an overabundance of volunteers. But Thanksgiving seems to define the day when giving back just seems natural.
For my family, the experience is always positive. The people we meet are incredibly grateful to share the holiday with others. The food is always hot and delicious and filled with hope.
While I wish more people took advantage of our services, I am proud that so many other families are sharing in this true Thanksgiving experience.
Terri Akman writes from Voorhees.