Thanksgiving feasts feed souls

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Iree Bradley, second from left, and Betty Wiley receive turkey dinners and drinks from volunteers Lynn Ramagos, left, Vanessa Dominguez Mays and Maude Johnson during New Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman's annual Thanksgiving Day community meal  at the Ernest Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. The event featured live music, free individual and family portraits by the Gulf South Photography Project and turkey dinners for more than 2,000 people.
Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Iree Bradley, second from left, and Betty Wiley receive turkey dinners and drinks from volunteers Lynn Ramagos, left, Vanessa Dominguez Mays and Maude Johnson during New Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman's annual Thanksgiving Day community meal at the Ernest Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. The event featured live music, free individual and family portraits by the Gulf South Photography Project and turkey dinners for more than 2,000 people.

Sheriff’s event, mission meal make memories

— Catherine Conerly and Leta Regis sat at their round table in the Ernest Morial Convention Center and marveled at the spectacle that is Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s annual Thanksgiving extravaganza.

A few blocks away, Joseph Gentris sat on a metal folding chair at the New Orleans Mission, and marveled at how much good can be accomplished with a little bit of help.

Thanksgiving Day is typically a time to spend with friends and family. But it’s a little different for some in the city. They spend the day eating with rooms full of strangers, or helping to feed those less fortunate. Gusman and the New Orleans Mission provided a table and an outlet for people whose idea of Thanksgiving goes against the grain.

Gusman’s event at the convention center drew an impressive crowd of attendees and volunteers. The event ran from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and was free and open to the public. Hundreds of volunteers joined sheriff’s deputies in serving food and providing transportation to anyone interested in participating.

The event featured a performance by Irma Thomas, and free photographs for attendees.

Conerly said she came out to the event because it was a good change of pace for her and her daughter. Regis agreed, noting that typically they would have had a standard dinner at home. Instead they both were enjoying the live music and party-like atmosphere Gusman provided.

“I saw it on television and I wanted to enjoy Thanksgiving with some people,” Conerly said.

Mae Dunbar was volunteering at the party with some other ladies from the Body Beautiful Fitness Center.

She said the group came out because helping others is a wonderful way to spend the holiday.

“It’s really a great feeling to come out and help those who are less fortunate,” Dunbar said. “It’s a blessing.”

New Orleans Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and the YMCA also sponsored events where they provided food to seniors and those in need this year. Morrell held her event on Tuesday, while the YMCA served meals at Delgado Community College on Thanksgiving Day.

Down at the New Orleans Mission, things were much more low-key. David Bottner, the mission’s executive director, said this is the first time the agency, which serves the city’s homeless population, has held a meal on Thanksgiving Day instead of just the Saturday before the holiday. Volunteers served roughly 250 men and woman, some of them “disciples” at the mission and others “guests.”

Mission disciples are men and women who stay at the mission permanently for one year. They do work around the facility and in other locations. Guests are those individuals who sleep at the facility at night, but leave in the morning.

“We wanted something more intimate for the guests,” Bottner said.

Bottner took over the mission about five months ago and since then he’s worked hard to make the agency financially viable and more active.

The discipleship program is part of a push to move the mission from just being a place to sleep at night, to an agency that truly works to change the lives of the homeless.

The mission uses a faith-based approach as it concentrates on helping the homeless obtain GEDs, stop substance abuse and prepare for a regular life, Bottner said.

The group has partnered with several like-minded groups around the city to provide more robust services.

“If the same guys are coming back here next year who came here this year, then what have you done?” said Bottner, who noted that the mission only had $3,000 in the bank and was facing closure when he took it over.

“I just believed that if we started doing more ministry, God would send the resources.”

Joseph Gentris is one of the homeless who are seeing the benefits of that new focus. Gentris has been living on the streets periodically for five years.

Gentris said the mission has helped him get a General Educational Development certificate . and he’s working towards getting a job and an apartment.

Many of the homeless just need someone to show them a better path, Gentris said. He credited the mission’s disciple program with being a big help in his life and others.

Some of the homeless chafe at the mission’s strict rules because they deeply value their independence.

But, others understand that following those rules is just a means to an end, Gentris said.

“I take advantage of what I can get out of the deal,” he said. “Everybody out here has a story about how they got in this situation and how they trying to come up out it.”