BY HELAINA HOVITZ | Thanksgiving dinner usually doesn’t take place at noon on a Monday, but when you have more than 1,000 hungry mouths to feed in a single day — and a slew of high-profile celebrities to schedule in — you’ve got to make it work.
The holiday came early 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 14th Annual Great Thanksgiving Banquet on Mon., Nov. 19. The mission sent buses to pick up guests from dozens of homeless shelters citywide and served up a meal in seven shifts to about 150 people at a time throughout the day. Those in attendance, representing the city’s struggling population, were excited to be dining in an elegant setting, listening to live music and waited on by celebrities and politicians.
Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb of the Today Show, Irv “Mr. G” Gikofsky from PIX11, actress Susan Sarandon, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, City Council Member Margaret Chin, Miss America 2012 Laura Kaeppeler and former NYC Mayor David Dinkins joined 100 other volunteers to host a traditional turkey dinner for the adults, chicken nuggets for the kids and apple pie with ice cream for all.
Several years ago, Mayor Mike Bloomberg proclaimed the next-to-last week in November as Great Thanksgiving Week in honor of the rescue mission’s work with the homeless, praising the mission as a wonderful organization “doing great work for vulnerable New Yorkers.” An average of 500 people frequent the shelter every day — a number that continues to grow as a result of Bloomberg’s budget cuts, which forced the John Heuss House, among others, to close in recent years. Now, the mission’s intake capacity is even more limited due to a construction project that will take at least another year to complete. The renovations will provide a much-needed three-story addition to the shelter’s 90 Lafayette St. building, but, as a result, its capacity has been temporarily reduced to 24 bunk beds on the second floor and 36 mobile mats on the ground floor.
Due to the space shortage, the banquet was held across the street at the vacant Engine 31 firehouse this year. Actress Susan Sarandon, who has a long-standing history of volunteering with the mission each year, was one of the servers. “I like the people I serve with, and it’s more fun to volunteer rather than just write a check,” she said. “They are always so surprised and grateful to see me.”
Kathie Lee Gifford was also there to help dish out Thanksgiving dinner for the 11th 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,” she said.
Close by was former mayor David Dinkins, who said it is important that the homeless community knows it is cared about. As the son of a mother who cooked and cleaned houses for a dollar a day during the Great Depression, Dinkins said he understands how hard life can be.
“I get a lot more out of it than they get out of me,” he said of volunteering.
The gala came just weeks after Hurricane Sandy rolled through Lower Manhattan — a time during which, despite its decreased capacity, the mission made room for everyone that walked through the doors in search of a bed.
Rather than stay with his family at home, the mission’s executive director, Craig Mayes, reported to the shelter right before Sandy hit. Residents of the mission, who participate in a 12-step alcohol and drug abuse recovery program, stepped up to the plate, collecting flashlights, filling buckets with water and bonding with one another as they hunkered down for the night. According to Mayes, the 30 men became “like staff,” cooking, serving, cleaning and otherwise taking care of things.
“One of our residents, T.J., was an alcoholic sleeping underneath the boardwalk in Atlantic City six months ago,” said Mayes. “During the storm, he somehow got phones and lights working with a little handy rewiring. He was our hero.”
At the Thanksgiving banquet, mission residents worked side by side with the celebrity servers to make sure that everyone was fed and entertained. Mission resident Wendell Herden, who graduated from the 12-step program back in June, is still living at the mission while he saves up for his own home.
“We come from backgrounds that include drug and social issues, but the mission helped us turn our lives around so we can show up and come together for others,” said Herden, who is currently working for an outpatient clinic in Harlem as a certified substance abuse counselor. “To be here with my brothers and help other people is the most rewarding part of all.”
Reality, unfortunately, did not elude some of the guests who feasted on Thanksgiving dinner in the crowded room. Among the many joyful, laughing attendees were those who were downcast, quietly eating their food alone; soon they would have to board the buses to return to where they came from.
Most of the adults and children were elated to receive the “blessing bags” on the way out. The adult bags contained New York Rangers sports gear, while the children’s bags contained baby wipes, hand sanitizer, placemats, pain relievers, stuffed animals, candy, thermoses and hats.
“It didn’t matter that we were all here on a Monday afternoon,” commented mission resident Richard Johnson, one of the banquet volunteers. “Thanksgiving is about giving back and being with others. Today, everyone had something to be thankful for.”