For Tom Uva, helping others is the best way to show gratefulness on Thanksgiving. For the last two years, he and his daughter Jenna, 12, have volunteered with about 250 others at the Syracuse Rescue Mission, serving a hot, holiday meal to hungry families.
“I love this part, where you can just kind of sit down with some of the guests and strike up a conversation, and so many interesting people and different backgrounds and stories. This is my favorite part of the day, right here," he said.
Volunteers began arriving at the Rescue Mission at about 5 a.m. to cook turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, pie, mixed vegetables and rolls. This year, the organization prepared, delivered and served almost 2,300 meals. Some helpers drove all over Onondaga County, delivering about 1,600 meals to residents who can’t afford thanksgiving dinner, said Alan Thornton, the organization’s CEO.
“Those families have worked so hard to overcome homelessness, so we continue to support them with meals and clothing and other things that are going to help them spread their budget a little further,” he said. “So, they can pay their rent, and hold on to their housing, and keep a nice roof over their kids’ heads.”
The rest of the meals were served at the mission’s cafeteria, where volunteers worked to create a welcoming, restaurant-style atmosphere.
“We’ve got nice tablecloths out. We’ve got nice decorations and centerpieces on the table, the placemats. We’ve got china and cutlery we’re using,” Thornton said. “So, it really kind of just looks so much nicer.”
Smiling workers and soft music greeted the guests as they filed into the cafeteria from the cold. They were then seated. Shortly after, volunteer hosts then took their meal requests, prepared their plates and served them at their tables. Throughout the meal, the waiters also refilled beverage glasses with coffee, juice or water and passed around rolls.
The Withers family has made volunteering at the Rescue Mission a Thanksgiving tradition. For the last nine years, Caroline Withers, 18, and her parents have traveled to the center from Manlius. She calls the experience “eye-opening.”
“We’re from the suburbs, so we don’t get much experience with people who are less fortunate,” Withers said. “So, I think it really kind of makes me personally grateful for what I have.”
Over the years, Withers and her parents have helped out in every way possible – they’ve cooked, delivered and served hot thanksgiving meals. But for the last few years, they’ve volunteered as waiters, which is her favorite role, Withers said. “Serving is definitely the most interesting and exciting because you get to meet so many different people and interact with them more, so it’s less monotonous,” she said.
Withers’ father, Matt, decided to incorporate volunteering at the Rescue Mission into the family’s holiday traditions because the charity is local and central to the Syracuse community.
“I wanted my family to have the experience of seeing how blessed we were with what we have,” he said, “and understanding that the whole world doesn’t have what we have.”
Many of the Rescue Mission’s Thanksgiving guests are homeless. But some have transitioned from the charity’s shelters to independent living. For instance, Drew Washington stayed at the rescue mission seven years ago after he lost all of his money to identity theft and survived a suicide attempt. After 45 days in the shelter, he found his own place to live.
“They could lose their job. They could lose their home. There could be a death in the family. It could be an illness. Anybody’s situation could lead them to a homeless environment.”
And it’s a situation that he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy, Washington said, calling it “a living nightmare.”
Now, he helps others transition out of homelessness, sharing his testimony and organizing a monthly movie night for me in the Rescue Mission’s shelters. And the men look forward to the movie marathons, he said. “They’re not drinking. They’re not doing drugs. They’re in a warm place,” he said. “They can drink a cup of coffee, watch a movie and have a good time. And they love it. They look forward to it.”
Alan Comfort has lived in one of the charity’s homeless shelters for the last month. Almost five years ago, he developed a brain infection. From that, he’s struggled with pain, numbness and mental disabilities, causing him to lose his job and apartment. His experience in the shelter has taught him that it’s alright to accept help from others, Comfort said.
“I’m learning that. Sometimes being in the position that I’m in, I don’t know the steps to take to try to get out, so it seems that has made things worse for me,” he said. “So, accepting help from people who have dealt with this situation can help me get out of this situation.”
Although Comfort’s grateful for the chance to eat a hot meal and socialize with others on Thanksgiving, he’s most thankful for something much simpler: “breathing.”
“I don’t see how else to look at it,” he said. “It’s a good day. Every day you wake up is a good day.”