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DC volunteers serve food and connections on Thanksgiving

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Janet “Jaye” Davis moved from foil tray to foil tray, scooping out portions of turkey and ham for those who gathered outside the brick So Others Might Eat building in the early morning chill on Thursday.

As she surveyed the plates and moved along a conveyor belt of volunteers in the dining room at SOME in Northwest Washington, Davis felt she was called here to do more than just hand out stuffing and cabbage to the homeless and hungry, who will soon be celebrating the festive laid tables would line. This Thanksgiving, her first home in nearly 12 years, Davis wanted to offer a dose of hope.

Davis, 44, had spent the last 11 years in prison for a robbery she committed years earlier. Before that, she said, she struggled with addiction — a dark cycle that took her onto the streets more than once.

Unlike many of the volunteers at SOME’s annual Thanksgiving Provide-a-Meal event, where families and young professionals from the DC area gather with churches and community groups to serve hot meals to hundreds of Washingtonians, Davis entered the room looked, she saw people who reminded her of her own journey and struggles.

“I am grateful for these people. I’m grateful to be here today because I used to be homeless and I know the feeling,” Davis said. “I want to tell them that they can turn things around.”

She pushed the tray in front of her, her eyes fixed on the shiny pieces of meat.

“If I can do it,” she said, “so can you.”

Davis was one of hundreds of volunteers mobilized across the district this week to serve the homeless and low-income individuals and families at a time when, experts say, ongoing economic instability and pandemic-related hardships have contributed to a high rate of need .

The district’s largest pantry, Bread for the City, closed its Thanksgiving turkey giveaway early for the first time in its 30-year history last week after overwhelming demand heightened tensions and security concerns.

Last week, DC Central Kitchen gave away 1,260 turkeys to two dozen community organizations and provided DC public school students with more than 500 storage bags of nonperishable food. The organization didn’t slow down this week, cooking more than 12,000 portions of side dishes and carving turkey skins to send to homeless and women’s shelters, a veterans’ group, the Salvation Army and other nonprofits.

On Thursday afternoon, delivery trucks idled outside DC Central Kitchen’s headquarters while a crew of chefs and other staff inside rushed to bring the last trays of food out the door.

The mood was concentrated – but festive.

Stacks of cornbread, giant pots of green beans, and vats of gravy filled every corner of the kitchen. Workers in hairnets rolled platters of turkey, carved and ready, down the hallways while hip-hop played and several broke into a chatter in the kitchen.

“I love being here today,” said kitchen worker Charles Walker, who took cooking classes at DC Central Kitchen after his release from prison in 2010.

Each of the thousands of side dishes distributed by SOME and DC Central Kitchen on Thursday began their journey Monday at the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center’s annual Everything But the Turkey event, where hundreds of volunteers gathered to chop vegetables, Flavor fillings and prepare thousands of pounds of food in just under three hours.

They prepared apple crumble and slaw by the side of the hill, chopped myriad green beans, and skinned clumps of yams.

For some, preparing food is a holiday tradition.

Sarah Rabin Spira, 44, and her husband Mark Spira, 49, met 17 years ago at JCC. Since then they have been volunteering together.

This is how they ring in the Christmas season, said Rabin Spira. And now that the kids are old enough, she said, bring them along too.

“It’s a family affair,” she said.

Other families, like the Wetmores, are new to the event, which started before the pandemic and resumed this year. But if Alex, 10, and Ayla, 6, have anything to say about it, they’ll be back next year.

“I like that it’s fun and it’s for a good cause and you know you’re going to help people, so it’s even more fun,” Alex said while focusing heavily on splitting celery stalks with a chef’s knife .

Beside him, Ayla wrestled with the lid of a packet of vegetable broth.

“I want to show them that we’re giving back to the community during the holiday season,” said Dave Wetmore, 47. “That it’s the right thing to do.”

For some of the regular guests who often come to SOME for hot meals, it’s the volunteers that make the vacation special, said Daryl Wright, vice president of Emergency Services.

“It’s not just that they serve here. It’s the sitting together, the talking to people, kind of that family connection with people,” Wright said Thursday. “That’s what you lose when you’re homeless — not just a hot meal, but that connection.”

For Davis, who vividly remembers what it felt like to live on the streets or be locked up and separated from her family, it was this connection to people who wanted to help that enabled her to come out of her addiction and years of trouble to get out of detention.

That year, she said, she even regained custody of her 13-year-old son Correll, a tall, talkative boy who joined her on SOME on Thursday to volunteer in the cloakroom and organize donations of warm-weather clothing .

Correll doesn’t know much about his mother’s time on the road, he said. You haven’t talked about it much.

But Davis said she will when he is ready. She wants to give him the same message she shared Thursday: No matter what happens, she told several people who came in from the cold Thanksgiving morning, you can find a way back home.

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