- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Thanksgiving, of all American holidays, may be the most closely associated with friends, family and abundance in all things, from food to football — and Americans have always had much to be thankful for.

But what of those who have nothing?

“This time of year can be a great stresser,” says David O. Treadwell, executive director of the District’s Central Union Mission. “The coming of the cold and the short days can really take their toll on the homeless.”

Thankfully, many Americans have another tradition associated with this time of year, one that involves giving back as well as giving thanks.

All around the Washington area — at the Central Union Mission, for example, or at Food and Friends and even among school students — volunteers are stirring soup, baking pies and serving up turkey dinners for those who have less.

For many, service on Thanksgiving will be the jump-start to community service that stretches far beyond the holidays.

• • •

Thanksgiving comes early to the Central Union Mission on R Street Northwest, a member of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions founded in 1884. The mission typically serves meals to about 500 people a day, but in the weeks preceding Thanksgiving it gives away 332 frozen turkeys and non-perishable trimmings to individuals and families through its various ministries.

In addition to the 75 or so men who use the mission’s overnight shelter or its Men’s Spiritual Transformation live-in program, Central Union Mission also serves families living in poverty and seniors and children from at-risk neighborhoods. It also has a growing Hispanic ministry, which was founded in 1998.

The Thanksgiving feast, a double-barreled affair, is special.

“Thanksgiving is the biggest time of the year for us,” says Mr. Treadwell, who has been working at the mission for the last eight years.

The mission actually has two Thanksgiving meals: The great banquet — prepared and served by about 40 volunteers who partake of the meal side-by-side with the 300 guests, a custom at Thanksgiving and Christmas — took place on Monday. The idea of the pre-holiday feast is to accommodate volunteers who head out of town for the holiday.

It works well. Lynne Cheney, the vice president’s wife, volunteered on the serving line for the pre-Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago. She took off her apron and sat down to chat. And the mission has photographs of first ladies Grace Coolidge and Eleanor Roosevelt visiting during the holiday season.

Among the volunteers at Monday’s banquet was Margaret Warner of “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.”

“It’s an opportunity to bring the donor community and the need community together,” Mr. Treadwell says.

On Thanksgiving Day itself the meal is just for the staff and the men living at the mission.

“That night it’s mostly the mission family,” says Mr. Treadwell. “That’s when you find out who really has nobody.”

• • •

Two extraordinary days, to be sure, but every day at Central Union Mission boasts something out of the ordinary for the men who spend their daytime hours on the city’s streets.

There’s a kind of quiet calm here that can be hard to come by in some other shelters. Men wait patiently in the serving line before sitting down to dinner at one of the mission’s long, highly polished wooden tables. Later, they’ll head downstairs for the chance to get a bed, a berth that involves clean sheets and a mandatory shower.

“Our demographics are quite extraordinary,” says the Rev. James Lewis, director of overnight guests at the mission, referring to the mixture of ages and ethnicities that make up the mission’s community — about 70 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic and 10 percent other. The Children’s Ministry has a sizable Hispanic population.

“All it can take is a downsizing of a job to put you out on the streets. That’s the thing about homelessness these days, when the cost of housing and rent is so high.”

Afterward, there is a chance for the men staying at the ministry to attend chapel and get some spiritual guidance from one of the chaplains available every night. Chapel attendance is part of the mission routine.

“Our operative word is rescue,” says Mr. Lewis, who has been at the mission for six years. “We partner with churches in the area for the evening service and we also offer Bible study, and interns from area seminaries serve as chaplains.”

Founded as a vehicle to help serve the city’s street population, including many Army veterans still suffering from the effects of the Civil War, the Central Union Mission has been a longtime fixture on the Washington landscape.

Washingtonians of a certain age may recall the massive “Jesus Saves” sign that once graced Pennsylvania Avenue at Sixth Street Northwest, the largest of its kind. Today, the organization is proud to state that it still takes no government funding, relying instead on private individuals and a few corporate donations — the kindness of strangers — to help provide for the hundreds of souls who pass through its doors.

“Some of our overnight guests actually come back to volunteer once they get back on their feet,” says Mr. Lewis. “Those are the rewards.”

• • •

Thanksgiving is probably the largest undertaking at Food and Friends, which delivers a traditional dinner, complete with turkey and all the trimmings, to more than 3,000 people.

“Here’s the thing about Thanksgiving,” says Craig Shniderman, Food and Friends’ executive director.

“We live in stressful and anxious times. People are anxious about their personal security and the security of the community. There is a sense of helplessness. What our volunteers are really doing is making a statement about increasing the security of their community, and they’re not relying on the government to do it.”

Since 1988, the organization has devoted itself to providing meals to those suffering from AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses. Like Central Union Mission, Food and Friends doesn’t just operate on Thanksgiving.

Each day, about 85 volunteers help the staff prepare and deliver meals to more than 1,000 people in the District and 14 counties in Maryland and Virginia. Clients are people in poor health — regardless of income or insurance status — who have been referred to Food and Friends by hospitals, clinics and other health organizations.

“Our size has increased, but what has not changed is our volunteer element,” Mr. Shniderman says. “Our organization is volunteer driven.”

Today, Thanksgiving Day, each of about 450 volunteers will deliver two to three traditional Thanksgiving meals, cooked and complete with turkey and the trimmings.

And in the days preceding the holiday, people living as far as Fredericksburg receive a turkey box , with frozen turkeys that can be thawed and cooked at home.

All told, Food and Friends delivers about 3,000 meals. But that’s not the main thing.

“It’s not really the meal,” Mr. Shniderman says. “It’s what people put into the meal.”

Although special diets are the norm for recipients on days other than Thanksgiving, the holiday is a time when, if possible, such requirements are put aside.

“People like the traditional Thanksgiving dinner,” says Mr. Shniderman. “Very few people want a restricted diet on Thanksgiving.”

Thanksgiving baskets are designed to serve four — after all, most people don’t want to spend Thanksgiving alone.

• • •

Picture 6,500 pounds of turkey, 900 pounds of mashed potatoes and 110 gallons of gravy, and you’ll have some idea of the undertaking at Food and Friends, where Thanksgiving begins — of necessity — several days in advance.

“I’ve smelled turkey cooking for four days before Thanksgiving,” says Mr. Shniderman, whose wife and three of his four children are volunteering this Thanksgiving morning. “I’m ready for something else for my dinner.”

Mr. Shniderman’s schedule for today has him showing up at Food and Friends at about 4:30 a.m., joined by the first group of volunteers, who do a two-hour stint. By noon today, more than 450 volunteers will have passed through Food and Friends’ doors. Most volunteers deliver two or three baskets before heading home for their own dinners.

“Citizen action can heal the community,” says Mr. Shniderman, who notes that Food and Friends has never shut down its operations on account of the weather. “We can feed half of D.C. on Thanksgiving, but the first snow in February is when we could really use volunteers.”

Of course, not everyone can give up part of a Thanksgiving holiday to make deliveries or work on a serving line. That’s part of the reason why Food and Friends sponsors a “pie drive” that attracts even more participants.

It’s an unusual step for Food and Friends, which never accepts food donations — except for this holiday. Most of the meals it delivers are designed for those on special diets, with all ingredients and portions carefully controlled and prepared under scrupulously observed sanitary conditions. But because of the spirit that rules Thanksgiving, it relaxes the rules.

So last weekend, citizens throughout the Washington area got together more than 1,100 homemade apple or pumpkin pies for today’s delivery baskets.

• • •

Many area schools hold pie-prepping and baking events the weekend before Thanksgiving for any number of organizations that serve the needy. For the past 11 years, families from Georgetown Day School in the District have met on the Sunday before the holiday to assemble some of the 200 apple pies that Food and Friends picks up the next day.

“It’s always been a time for families,” says Elsa Newmyer, the school’s director of Pre-K-12 Community Service. “The students do a number of programs in school, but we were looking for something for families to do together.”

Community service starts early at GDS, where even the pre-kindergarten students help to assemble peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for area soup kitchens. By middle school, seventh- and eighth-grade students are traveling to Food and Friends for lectures on nutrition and illness. And the school boasts a community service requirement for graduation from the high school.

“Community service is something that the school does extremely well,” says Susan Cole, a parent of an eighth-grader and a 12th-grader. “I don’t like to bake that much, but I’ve been involved in this program for a very long time.”

The pie baking grew out of a sixth-grade program on hunger and homelessness, and over the years has involved students from every division in the school. Not everyone is adept at pie-making, so lower-school students receive a take-home kit to bake their pies at home.

“When you send someone home with a pie tin and a recipe, it’s a good reminder that they have something important to do on the weekend, says Miss Newmyer. “And by sending it home, many more people participate.”

Despite the mess that results from the pies assembled at school, this is one after-school activity that many parents deem worthwhile, and students don’t seem to mind going into school on the weekend. Soccer teams and Girl Scout troops can show up unexpectedly.

And if the assembly line is not so well-orchestrated as those at Food and Friends or Central Union Mission, something of the same spirit is there anyway.

“It’s a very fulfilling experience,” Mrs. Cole says. “We’re lucky, and we get to spend Thanksgiving with our extended family every year. We want our children to know that that’s a privilege that not everyone has.”

Volunteers can help any time of year

“We need people on the second week of January just as much as on Thanksgiving and Christmas,” says the Rev. James Lewis, director of overnight guests at the Central Union Mission. “The need is continuous.”

That means anyone looking to volunteer to help the needy doesn’t have to wait until the feast rolls around next year. People can stretch the spirit of Thanksgiving to cover the whole year.

Here’s a sampling of volunteer opportunities in our area — today and at other times:

• Central Union Mission: 1350 R St. NW. Ministers to men at its headquarters location and maintains meal service and other aid programs for seniors, children, single parents and the Hispanic community. Also offers legal aid. Volunteers welcome all year. 202/745-7118 or www.missiondc.org

• Emmaus Services for the Aging: 1426 9th St. NW. Emmaus uses more than 300 volunteers who help seniors in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest. It needs 60 drivers on Thanksgiving morning to help deliver meals to homebound elderly. Call Connie Mobley at 202/745-1200.

• Food and Friends: 219 Riggs Road NE. Provides meals to those suffering from AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses. Many opportunities for service beyond Thanksgiving. Those who can’t volunteer but wish to help can donate $25 or more and receive a tree ornament. 202/269-2277 or www.foodandfriends.org

• Greater DC Cares: 1725 I St. NW. The region’s leading coordinator of volunteerism and corporate philanthropy offers a wide range of volunteer opportunities. 202/777/4440 or www.dc-cares.org

• St. Columba’s Episcopal Church: 4201 Albemarle St. NW. Community Thanksgiving dinner in the church’s Great Hall noon-3 p.m. for those who have no home as well as anyone — including parishioners and college students — who can’t get home for Thanksgiving. The event is part of the Friendship Place Partners, a coalition of several faith-based programs including the Anne Frank House, St Alban’s Church, St. Luke’s Shelter and the Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place. 202/363-4119 or www.columba.org

• Volunteer Match: A national organization, based in San Francisco, that aims to help everyone find the best use of his or her volunteer talent. Find Washington volunteer opportunities at ties at www.volunteermatch.org

• The Washington Center for Aging Services: 2601 18th St. NE. Feeds about 100 residents at its 262-bed nursing home facility in Northeast. There’s still time to help with Thanksgiving: Volunteers are needed this morning from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the WCAS Crystal Room. To volunteer today or at other times, call 202/541-6269.


The Bead Museum

• The Bead Museum in the District needs volunteers to greet visitors, operate the museum shop, provide tours and help with other duties at the museum. For information, call 703/836-2176.

Clara Barton historical site

• The Clara Barton National Historic Site needs volunteers. Positions are available in the library, to give tours and help with school projects. For more information, call Bob Carns at 301/492-6245.

Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind

• Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing programs and services to persons who are blind or visually impaired, is seeking adult and student volunteers in the Greater Washington area. For more information, call Jocelyn Hunter at 202/454-6422.

Gadsby’s Tavern

• Gadsby’s Tavern Museum in Old Town Alexandria is looking for volunteer tour guides for weekdays and weekends. No experience is necessary, just a love of history. For more information, call 703/838-4242.

Parenting Program

• The Nurturing Parenting Program, sponsored by Fairfax County’s Department of Family Services, offers parenting classes to promote the strengthening of families and prevent child abuse and neglect. The no-cost program is open to all Fairfax County families. Contact Krissa Slone at 703/324-7745 for more information.

Smithsonian’s Insect Zoo

• The Smithsonian’s Insect Zoo is seeking volunteers to help museum visitors discover the world of insects. The museum requires a one-year commitment of at least eight hours of service per month. Training is provided. For more information, contact Dan Babbitt, volunteer coordinator, at 202/633-1089 or [email protected]

Social Service opportunities

• The Prince George’s County Department of Social Services has volunteer opportunities at various locations throughout the county. For more information, call 301/909-6319.

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