Feeding NYC’s most vulnerable provides a lesson in gratitude

“Hizzoner” former NYC Mayor David Dinkins (center) helped dole out a Thanksgiving feast to homeless men, women and children at the NYC Rescue Mission on Monday, Nov.21.

BY HELAINA N. HOVITZ  |  For most people, Thanksgiving dinner likely does not take place at 11:30 a.m.; but when you have over 1,000 cold and hungry mouths to feed in a single day, every minute counts.

Thanksgiving came early on Monday for many of the city’s homeless men, women and children living in shelters and on the streets, courtesy of the New York City Rescue Mission’s 11th Annual Great Thanksgiving Banquet. The meal was served in five shifts, to a little more that 200 people at a time throughout the day. Those in attendance, representing the city’s forgotten population, were excited to be dining at an elegant table setting, listening to live music and being waited on by celebrities and politicians.

Miss America 2011 Teresa Scanlan, former NYC Mayor David Dinkins, Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb of the Today Show, Senator Daniel Squadron, New York 1 anchor Cheryl Wills, Mr. G from Pix11, and City Councilmember Margaret Chin joined 75 other volunteers to serve up a traditional turkey dinner for the adults, macaroni and cheese for the kids, and pie and ice cream for all.

“What makes this day so special is the people,” said Jim VarnHagen, the mission’s executive director. “When they see this kind of attention and encouragement, their eyes light up. We try to give them something to rejoice over, hopefully a feeling they can take with them, call on, and remember.”

Gifford was serving at the mission for the tenth consecutive year.

“When you look into the faces of the people here, you see despair, but you also see the glimmer of humanity of everybody’s eyes,” said Gifford. “They want the same thing in life you and I do, to feel safe, loved, valued.

“It’s not difficult to open your wallet, hand someone money, and say, ‘I did my part’ then go home and cook dinner,” said Lee’s co-host, Hoda Kotb. “This, however, is much, more personal.”

Some of the mission’s own residents also helped serve guests; one of them was Greg Manning, 49, who will graduate from the mission’s twelve-step recovery program this month.

“I want to be able to help the needy even if I’m in need myself,” said Manning, who found his way to Lower Manhattan after years of sleeping on porches, in subway stations, and in mold infested abandoned houses.

This mission, said Manning, has treated him like their guest every day, instead of “like trash,” as other missions had. Manning spent last Thanksgiving alone, without his 3-year-old daughter, Saniah Rose; but he will be with her this Thursday, whether “it’s at the mission or at a diner,” and is most grateful for being able to spend Thanksgiving with his best friend.

But reality, unfortunately, did not elude some of the guests eating in the crowded room on a time-sensitive schedule. Among the many joyful, laughing and upbeat attendees, were those with eyes downcast, quietly eating their food alone.

Soon they would have to board the busses to go back from where they came.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg recently proclaimed the next-to-last week in November as Great Thanksgiving Week in honor of the NYC Rescue Mission’s work with the homeless, praising them as a wonderful organization “doing great work for vulnerable New Yorkers.

An average of 400 people frequent the shelter every day, a number that continues to grow as a result of Bloomberg’s budget cuts that forced John Heuss House to close its 42 Beaver Street shelter last year.

The NYC Rescue Mission at 90 Lafayette Street is New York City’s first “Rescue Mission,” and residents participate in a twelve-step recovery program. Unlike most men’s recovery missions, it doubles as a drop-in center for transient men, women, and children. Twenty-five beds are reserved for men in the mission’s recovery program.

“I love this mission because it’s not just about feeding people and sending them on their way, they give these men the tools they need to move forward,” said Scanlan, donning a chef’s hat and apron in place of a crown and gown.

“I come on Thanksgiving, but their work comes year round. I have enormous respect for what they do,” said Lee, who sang a rousing rendition of “Amazing Grace” after serving dessert. “I can’t even imagine the countless number of people that have been healed and fed in all the years they’ve been doing it. They’re the real deal.”

Adults and kids alike were elated upon receiving “blessing bags” on the way out. The bags contained baby wipes, hand sanitizer, placemats, pain relievers, thermoses, and hats.

“There’s a joyful feeling here today. We don’t have a lot, but at least we can share what we do have,” said Manning as he helped hand out the bags to guests. “Nobody had to be alone. Even for a couple hours, they didn’t have to be alone.”