Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Barb O'Neill's Family and Friends 47th Annual Thanksgiving Meal

Above: Rodney O’Neill greets friends as he carries on his mother’s legacy with Barb O'Neill's Family and Friends Thanksgiving event. Barb O’Neill started the meal for family and close friends out of her home in 1969. Eventually, it became a community event.

By Janine Gates

Rodney O’Neill, 50, suffered a stroke on January 31, but says nothing could keep him and a whole lot of friends from pulling off the 47th annual Barb O’Neill’s Family and Friends Thanksgiving community meal. The event was held at First United Methodist Church on Wednesday.

“Without the community support and help of everybody, we would be sunk,” he said, crediting support from local nonprofits, the Washington Federation of State Employees Local 443 union, NW Realty and the Van Dorm family, and many more.

About his stroke that affected his right side, O’Neill said, “It happened so quickly -there were no warning signs.” O’Neill has worked hard to recover, and has progressed from using a wheelchair to walking with some difficulty. 

“It slowed me down but it definitely didn’t stop me. I have a purpose. I have been given the right tools to do what I do with knowledge, faith, and a genuine passion to want to help people….” he said, as well wishers and friends constantly caught his attention.

O’Neill estimated that about 150 volunteers turned out to assist with the meal, including a lot of high school students from Olympia High School and Timberline High School, who also provided musical entertainment.

Logistically, volunteers started planning on Tuesday at 8:00 a.m.

“Being prepared and working all day yesterday gave us an advantage,” he said. O’Neill was prepared to serve about 1,500 meals, but by 4:30 p.m., only about 550 meals were served. Each meal was deeply appreciated.

An evening dinner rush before 5:00 p.m. is typical, and volunteers were ready. Robert Johns, who has assisted with the Thanksgiving dinner for four years, wore a festive turkey hat as he stood behind the serving line, ready to replace empty serving food containers with hot, full ones. 

The total number of those served was down, perhaps due to the fact that the event was changed this year from United Churches in downtown Olympia to First United Methodist Church on Legion Way, in Olympia’s eastside neighborhood. 

The new location provides more room for folks to eat, sit, enjoy musical entertainment on a stage, and make new friends, or see old friends. O’Neill is confident people will find and get used to coming to the new location.

“It’s just amazing….Look, there’s no stress on their faces. They are happy to be here,” O'Neill said of the crowd. 

Not only were folks able to eat a traditional Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings, a resource room was set up to provide information about local social services, and a clothing room provided clothes, blankets, coats, and paper bags filled with soups and soap. The YMCA provided free shower passes to those in need. 

Providing enough clothes and warm coats for men is a perpetual need and donations are accepted year round.

Describing how he had worked on the meals by his mother’s side since he was little, O'Neill said that taking over the event was not as easy as he first thought.

“In the last three years of her life, it was like I was in ‘Training Day.’ It was always so intense with everything she was trying to tell me, and I was like, ‘OK, Mom, I got it, I got it,’ but the whole time, I didn’t have it.”

But by the looks of how shifts of volunteers were kept busy and smoothly rotated between stations, and plentiful, hot food, drinks and desserts were served with smiles, with friendly conversation heard throughout the church’s Great Hall, it would seem Rodney O’Neill has got it.

O’Neill’s Family and Friends will have a Christmas meal on Saturday, December 17, from 12 – 6:00 p.m. at First United Methodist Church, and provide toys and gift baskets.

For more photos and stories about Barb O’Neill’s Family and Friends, go to and type key words into the search engine.

To donate food, gifts, gently used clothing, or supplies such as sleeping bags or coats, or to find out how you can get involved in this event or other community events sponsored by Barb O'Neill's Family and Friends, contact Rodney O'Neill at (360) 485-9931 or

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