Feeding the soul, while feeding the hungry

Hundreds gather for Thanksgiving dinner, conversation

Unlike many people who were worrying over stoves and checking the turkey, Mable Eisley, 61, was taking a rest Thursday. She joined hundreds of people at the Baton Rouge River Center to enjoy the Holiday Helpers of Baton Rouge annual Thanksgiving Together Dinner while the four grandchildren she’s raising spent the day with their mother.

“I saw a friend of mine coming from this way and he said they had Thanksgiving dinner for free,” Eisley said. “I enjoyed it immensely.”

As a grandmother currently caring of four of her eight grandchildren ages 7, 9, 12 and 14, she said she enjoyed a little relaxing time.

Her oldest granddaughter had volunteered to serve with Holiday Helpers this year as well and came over to clean up her plate.

“Everybody has been so hospitable,” Eisley said.

That’s exactly what organizers of the Thanksgiving Together Dinner say they want people to experience.

“It’s just an opportunity to show the community that we care about them,” said City Constable Reginald Brown, one of the main organizers of the Holiday Helpers of Baton Rouge’s dinner.

He said they probably had 400 to 500 volunteers helping with this year’s meal, even though 60 or 70 volunteers would likely have been enough to handle the dinner service. He said he doesn’t want to turn away volunteers, especially since the people who come for the meal enjoy their conversations with volunteers as much as the food.

He found this out years ago when some guests told him that the entertainment they were providing was great, but no one was listening because they wanted to talk to each other.

So now, there’s no music just conversation.

“That conversation means a lot because when they leave here, they’ve had a connection,” Brown said.

He estimated that about 1,600 meals would be served on Thursday, but said Holiday Helpers always makes sure they end up with more food than gets served. The left over food, he explained, is refrigerated and then sent to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul the next day, Brown said.

“St. Vincent de Paul does this 365 days a year,” Brown noted.

Michael Acaldo, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, said the food Holiday Helpers supplies is the first Christmas gift of the year for a dining room that will likely serve 240,000 meals this year.

Acaldo estimated St. Vincent de Paul served about 600 people Thursday, which he said may be down some from last year because the holiday doesn’t fall as close to the end of the month, when many families’ resources become scarce.

“People don’t come to us if they can eat otherwise,” Acaldo said.

In addition to the meal, St. Vincent de Paul also gave guests a gift certificate they could use at a thrift store set up in the parking lot next to the dinning room.

“We tried to give gift certificates to our thrift stores, but not many were redeemed and we think it was a transportation issue,” Acaldo said.

He and staff came up with the idea of bringing the store to the holiday meal. They first tried the idea last Christmas and it worked great, Acaldo said. So this year, a tent was set up outside the dining room where guests could pick up blankets, pillows, shoes, clothes, toiletries and more.

The tent and volunteer help came from the nonprofit Needy of Greater Baton Rouge, Acaldo said.

Mark Harris, 51, a currently out-of-work cook who is homeless, said the food brought him to the dining room Thursday, but that other items, like a new pair of boots, were certainly going to help him. However, he said, he’s hopeful he’ll land a job soon.

“It’s looking good,” he said.