By Janine Unsoeld
For 45 years, the Barb O’Neill’s Family and Friends Thanksgiving Dinner has served the community, and did so again today from noon to 5 p.m. at The United Churches in downtown Olympia. Just before 5:00 p.m., it was estimated that 1,500 meals had been served.
Volunteers with community resource organizations such as GRuB, Safeplace, the Thurston/Mason chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and Quixote Village handed out potentially life-saving literature and information.
Kitchen volunteers monitored the food line often and quickly exchanged empty bowls, pans and platters with full ones. Everyone had their plates full of hot turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, deviled eggs, and stuffing. Some came back more than once.
One volunteer who served food was Gracie Anderson, 15, a student at Olympia High School. She’s been serving meals at the Thanksgiving gathering for five years, and sees a future for herself in social work. She is involved in several clubs at school, including the National Honor Society and debate. She says she loves to talk about local issues.
With her mom and little sister serving desserts nearby, Anderson served garlic bread and extra butter and I served celery sticks and pickles. Although I cheerfully offered both options equally, the pickles were popular and we ran out them by mid-afternoon.
The articulate teenager exuded enthusiasm and told me a few stories. I asked why she keeps coming back to help serve.
“It’s a humbling experience to be able to help people who can’t always help themselves,” she said.
She says she breathes a sigh of relief when she sees the same people back year after year because at least she knows they are O.K. She wonders if the children she sees are homeless.
Anderson says the nice thing about the Thanksgiving Dinner is that anyone can come, so there’s no stigma to coming and being served a good meal. She says that although she feels comfortable around people in need, it also helps for her to visualize that within everyone, there’s a child.
“Sometimes it helps to see the child instead of the adult….and everyone has a story….One year, about two years ago, I got into a heart-to-heart conversation with a woman who said she had cancer and couldn’t afford treatment. I could tell she was weak. I’ve never seen her again…She was amazing,” said Anderson, her voice trailing off in thought.
Anderson said she read a book last year, “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction,” by Dr. Gabor Mate, and recommended it to anyone who wants to learn more about people and their addictions. She said her mom read it too.
“It was life changing, and gave me a new perspective on what I do here,” she said.
Asked if she’s seen a shift in demographics of those who come to be served, she said she thinks she sees more older children and not as many little kids. “But maybe it’s because I’m more involved and mature and see things with a new perspective.”
Gracie Anderson has also served food for the Barb O’Neill’s Family and Friends gathering at Christmas time and Easter.
“I love Christmas – I helped kids pick out free presents for their parents, and I made about 450 friendship bracelets and gave them all out,” she said. Anderson’s little sister came over and pulled a few of the friendship bracelets out of her pocket. Anderson tied one on my wrist.
“It’s fun when people come back and I see them still wearing their bracelet,” she said.
We were relieved of our posts about 4:00 p.m., and a fresh group of volunteers took over our duties, while a steady stream of visitors still came in to receive food.
Everyone was being served. Some visitors had been there for hours to enjoy the food, company, the live music, coffee, pop, and water, and a warm place to hang out. I enjoyed a meal and several meaningful conversations.
One guy with a great sense of humor told me his life story but warned me that he probably won’t remember our conversation if we see each other again due to a brain injury. A former long haul truck driver, he suffered a brain hemorrhage 13 years ago while at his truck stop on Mottman Road. His license was taken away and he has not worked since.
“After a while, I told my wife I was bored. She said I wasn’t allowed to say I was bored. So I go to the doctor and he tells me I’m depressed! Well, let me tell you, I’m bored with being depressed!” he laughed. He is very proud of his 27 year old daughter who is a dancer.
Saying goodbye, having made a few new friends, Rodney O’Neill greeted people coming and going at the door. I got a big hug. Pointing Gracie out to him, I told him how wonderful she is.
“That’s what inspires me so much, is seeing the same faces every year,” he said with a smile.
Serving celery sounds simple, but it was harder than it looks, and behind that is a lot of hard work. O’Neill and a solid team of volunteers, many of them teenagers, including a young man named Ian, had been there preparing and cooking food since 8:00 a.m.
About 4:15 p.m., Rich Smith, kitchen manager, gave O’Neill a quick update on the food situation. One more uncooked turkey remained. It was decided to not cook it. Over 1500 meals had been served today.
“That’s 25 dozen deviled eggs, 140 pounds of mashed potatoes – all hand peeled and hand mashed – 200 pounds of stuffing, and 30 smoked turkeys. Safeway donates all the desserts and breads,” Smith laughed, and headed back into the kitchen.