Bless You, Boys: For the turkeys

Saints pitch in to help out families in need

Central City is one of the most drug-infested, violent neighborhoods in New Orleans and the United States. Gunfire there has ended the lives of four young children since 2010. The oldest of them was a 5-year-old girl; the rest were one boy and two girls each age 2 or younger.

Several months ago, authorities charged 35 men belonging to two separate street gangs with peddling cocaine and heroin and using deadly violence to protect their trade in and around the section of town whose major thoroughfares include Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Simon Bolivar Avenue.

Central City also happens to be home to most of the people who signed up this year to receive Thanksgiving baskets purchased with money supplied by players of the New Orleans Saints. The Saints, including some players, planned to distribute those meals to 1,000 families at the Dryades YMCA on O.C. Haley on Wednesday afternoon.

There’s no denying that the event posed an opportunity for the Saints to generate some positive buzz for themselves — not that they’re lacking it when they’re 9-2 and preparing for a Dec. 2 visit to the Seattle Seahawks (10-1), the only team that’s ahead of them in the NFC.

However, to the families that stood to most benefit from the giveaway, especially the 600 to 700 that reside in Central City, the Saints’ donation of time and money at least slightly and temporarily eases a real need for them, according to Jay H. Banks, the Dryades YMCA’s director of membership.

“All of the ills that affect America are found here in Central City,” Banks said. “Poverty, violence, a lack of education — we are trying to do what we can to alleviate some of these problems as best we can.”

To Saints players, the giveaway’s a valuable chance to show their appreciation for members of their fan base who are less fortunate — but no less passionate — than those who pack the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and follow them on the road during the season.

“They help support us ... whether we are up or down,” said Saints running back Pierre Thomas, a past giveaway participant. “Giving back like that, knowing you can do that, it means a lot.”

Held annually for 25 years, the Saints’ turkey giveaway at the Dryades YMCA serves senior citizens and single-parent households for the most part, Banks said. Attendees don’t always recognize all of the Saints handing them their baskets, especially if the player is situated at the bottom of the team roster.

But, in general, it doesn’t matter if it’s Drew Brees or an unheralded member of the practice squad that they’re getting their meal from — recipients “get very, very excited to interact with them, touch them, take pictures with them,” said Banks, who’s spent much of his life associated with the Dryades YMCA.

“When you see an 80-year-old grandma looking like a 6-year-old on Christmas morning that just opened a new toy because she got to talk to one of the Saints, that’s something you don’t forget,” Banks said.

Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton, who distributed turkeys last year, knows what Banks is talking about. “It’s awesome to be able to put a smile on someone’s face who hasn’t smiled in days,” Lofton said.

The gathering at the Dryades YMCA, though, wasn’t the only one where Saints players could spread cheer to the community. For example, left guard Ben Grubbs arranged to give away about 400 turkeys Tuesday evening at the NFL Youth Education Town center on the corner of Earhart Boulevard and South Broad Street.

One of the recipients was Ernestine Farlough, 60, who lives on the edge of Central City in the public housing development now called Marrero Commons, site of the slaying of a 2-year-old girl in 2011.

“We love our Saints, and we really appreciate this,” said Farlough, holding up her turkey. “It’s a big help for me and my family.”

Grubbs remarked, “The Lord’s put me in a position to be a blessing to a lot of families. ... What’s so special about Thanksgiving is family. It’s an opportunity to get together and make memories — that’s what I did growing up.”

Meanwhile, rookie Saints linebacker Kevin Reddick worked with his handlers at Millennium Sports Management Group to give 300 turkeys away to residents of his hometown, New Bern, N.C., the day after New Orleans’ recent win over Atlanta.

Reddick realized he wouldn’t be able to show up at his event, which unfolded while he and teammates reviewed film from the Falcons game. But he said he nonetheless funded the giveaway that Millennium coordinated because he remembers how lucky he felt that his mother, Lyndora Jenkins, could provide him a meal every Thanksgiving while she raised him in a New Bern public housing development.

That wasn’t the case for many of his neighbors and friends, whose families frequently couldn’t afford Thanksgiving celebrations and who eagerly accepted invitations to have dinner with Reddick and his mom.

“I knew a lot of people didn’t have what I had when I was growing up,” Reddick said. “I knew some things were still the same — if not worse. I wanted to be able to give back, say, ‘I know how things were,’ and hopefully bless somebody now that I’m blessed to be in the NFL.”