BR needy find cheer in Christmas meals, gifts

a Christmas feast

While most families were opening presents, a line outside the St. Vincent de Paul dining hall in Baton Rouge had been building all Christmas morning.

When the doors opened at 11:30 a.m., the initial group of 120 holiday diners filled the seats and hundreds more remained in line.

About 150 volunteers awaited them.

Katherine Theunissen, of Baton Rouge, was one. She has been coming for years with her kids to serve turkey dinner on Christmas, a tradition for many of the volunteers. On this day, her duty was to ensure every child who ate got toys to take home. Adults also each left with free gifts, which they selected from a Christmas store outside, as well as a brown bag to-go meal.

“I come just to give back and to give my kids the experience of giving to others,” Theunissen said.

“It wouldn’t be Christmas,” chimed in fellow Baton Rouge volunteer Nicky Shills.

Shills has spent 18 Christmases in a row, along with Thanksgivings, serving the homeless and the hungry in the crowded dining hall. She complimented the organizers for making sure the annual event goes off relatively smoothly.

“It starts out as mass confusion and then it evens out,” she said.

Many of the diners had come in the past and said they like the warm welcome, good food and presents.

“It’s a blessing,” said Tamika Lowery, who brought along her children Tanasja, 5, Elijah, 8, and Tiara, 9. “Kids come and get a good meal.

“And I can’t cook,” she added with a laugh.

“I got no family here, and I’m kinda between jobs,” said Jonathan Wilson. “It’s nice to be with people.”

Among the volunteers were regulars like Mayor-President Kip Holden and Bishop Robert Muench, of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.

“The first thing I noticed is the line keeps getting bigger every year,” said Muench.

He credits the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the volunteers and those who donate food and gifts for helping those in need.

“It makes you feel good about this community,” Muench said.

Michael Acaldo, chief executive officer of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Baton Rouge, said the dining hall served 891 meals Wednesday and the charity expects to serve more than 230,000 in 2013, likely close to the level of last year, a record year. He said many of those served are embarrassed to say how tough their lives have become.

“They are some people in genuine need, I’m going to tell you,” he said.

Acaldo said both the dining hall and the society’s homeless shelter have seen a steady increase in usage through the years, peaking during the recent national economic recession.

He said although the latest annual report on homelessness by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development indicates homelessness has decreased in Baton Rouge by 25 percent in the past year, his organization’s demand for services has remained steady. He also said the demand for food has grown in recent months, especially since cuts in federal food stamp benefits went into effect in November.

While men still are the main users of St. Vincent de Paul services, more and more women, sometimes with children, are seeking help, too, he said.

“Twenty-four years ago it was very rare to have a homeless woman or a homeless mother,” Acaldo said. “Now it’s an everyday kinda thing.”

Byron Ragland, who had two of his legs amputated as a result of a shooting in 1985, rolled away in his wheelchair carrying a donated pillow and blanket. Ragland said life has been good since he found Jesus but said he works as a landscaper and could use more work.

Pam Guthrie brought along three of her seven children and walked back home with toys aplenty, including a Big Wheel tricycle that her 5-year-old, Dillion, was pedaling with abandon. She said she waited about 90 minutes outside before getting in. She blamed the children for her early arrival.

“They were so excited,” Guthrie said ruefully. “They got me up before I was even awake.”