- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The disco hit “We Are Family” might not scream Thanksgiving for most people, but for Elizabeth Stockton, it perfectly expresses her holiday mission.

“We are family / I got all my sisters with me,” Ms. Stockton, 75, sang Tuesday afternoon as she went from door to door delivering free bags of Thanksgiving groceries to her neighbors in the Samuel Kelsey apartment building in Northwest.

“We have a gobble gobble for you too,” she said with a giggle as she offered a turkey and nonperishable items to each of her neighbors.

Ms. Stockton was one of the many volunteers who helped deliver more than 800 free Thanksgiving meals across the District this week.

“I love to talk to the people and make them smile, and that’s the most important thing, is having them smile,” said Ms. Stockton, who volunteers at We Are Family, a D.C. nonprofit that advocates for and provides free services to inner-city seniors.

At each door, her neighbors greeted her with smiles, thanks and sometimes hugs.

“I appreciate it. I need it,” Elijah Ward, a 59-year-old disabled neighbor, said of the free meal. “I don’t have the income to get one myself.”

Ernestine McNeill was just getting back from the store Tuesday when We Are Family volunteers arrived to deliver her Thanksgiving meal.

She was excited about the turkey. Some of the groceries she had just bought already were opened, but she said she purchased them anyway because it was all she could afford.

“I don’t understand the government,” said Ms. McNeill, adding that she is struggling to pay for her health insurance because she made too much money to qualify for Medicaid. “I have been working since I was 14, and I am 69 now. They don’t think you are supposed to have anything, you grow old to live homeless … because you can’t afford to do anything.

According to the Capital Area Food Bank, 11% of people older than 60 in the District are food insecure, meaning they lack access to sufficient, affordable and nutritious food.

We Are Family co-director Mark Andersen on Tuesday gathered volunteers in the Samuel Kelsey courtyard in Columbia Heights for a talk before sending them out to make deliveries.

“There is a poison in the history of D.C. There is a history of racial oppression, and it is still with us,” he said, reminding them of some of the hardships D.C. seniors have faced. “To say ‘We are family’ in that context is a radical act. It is even more radical in the best way possible when we act on it, and that’s what we are doing here today.”

Mr. Andersen said that, in addition to bringing seniors physical needs such as food, We Are Family provides a sense of belonging and makes them feel like they matter.

The nonprofit acts as a family in some ways. It sends out to seniors a holiday card with a picture of Mr. Anderson, his two children and his wife, Tulin Ozdeger, who co-directs the organization. It also has his cellphone number.

He said many of the seniors hang the picture on their walls.

Mr. Anderson and Ms. Ozdeger are the only paid employees of We Are Family, which relies heavily on volunteers to provide free services such as grocery delivery, rides to appointments, visits with seniors and advocacy for seniors with their landlords or the government.

About a quarter of the 200 regular volunteers, like Ms. Stockton, are seniors and serve as grassroots leaders in the organization, which Mr. Andersen said is the most important group of volunteers they have.

Without the trust of the leaders in the senior communities, “highfalutin ideas of building community are lost,” he said.

Mr. Andersen grew up in a small town in Montana. When he founded the organization with his wife in 2004, he wanted to bring to the District that small-town feel where everyone knows one another and feels supported by one another.

“People can be surrounded by thousands of people and be utterly alone,” Mr. Andersen said. He choked up and added that We Are Family is “knitting together a torn community.”

• Sophie Kaplan can be reached at skaplan@washingtontimes.com.

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