Setting the Table
How Thanksgiving meals make their way to Austinites in need
Gloria Guzman wants to teach her grandchildren – Isaiah, 18, and Sierra, 11 – gratitude. Volunteering as a family, bringing warm food to people in need on Thanksgiving Day, brings the three of them closer. She knows that seeing people from different walks of life has helped her grandson, who has been delivering Meals on Wheels with his grandmother since he was 11 years old, mature. "I kind of feel like they're being brat kids, you know what I mean?" she said. "They haven't seen the other side. They think that everything is easy come."
And why Meals on Wheels, and not any of the other slew of nonprofits operating in Austin during the holiday season or year-round?
"Well, I had my mother first. She was a recipient of Meals on Wheels. So I always thought I wanted to pay back for what they had always done for my mom. They were always there for her."
Guzman's mother received Meals on Wheels for "years and years." Before that, Guzman would run to her mother's home on her lunch break and make something for the two of them. When Guzman's job site moved to the other side of town, she had no idea how she would continue to ensure her elderly mother maintained a healthy diet. That's where Meals on Wheels came in.
"There are other Meals on Wheels programs across the country that maybe serve more meals than we do on an annual basis, but we take a more holistic approach to keeping our clients living at home independently, and keeping them out of assisted living," said Thad Rosenfeld, vice president of communications at Meals on Wheels and More. That comes in the form of not only 3,000 meals a day, but also pet care through the PALS program (Pets Assisting the Lives of Seniors) and $2.5 million a year in home repairs. The clients MOW serves are often elderly or disabled, with one or more barriers to preparing food. The "and More" part of the Meals on Wheels brand acknowledges that, as Rosenfeld said, MOW can serve as many meals as possible but they won't achieve their goal if other problems force clients out of their homes. Or if they can't afford pet food, and end up sharing their meals with their animals.
"It's just a relief," said Guzman, whose mother died in 2013 at 87, of the Meals on Wheels experience. "I guess the word's going to be relief. Relief that she was getting healthy by eating Meals on Wheels food, and I didn't have to be worrying about, 'Oh gosh, I have to go and cook her this, she hasn't eaten.'"
On Thanksgiving Day proper, Meals on Wheels serves 500 meals (down from the daily 3,000), due to a major donation from H-E-B. "So many of our clients have outlived family and friends, and they live alone," said Rosenfeld. "They live a very meager existence. These are folks who worked hard all their lives, they've played by the rules, and they find themselves in these so-called 'golden years' in a very tenuous situation, both physically and economically."
From One to 30,000
Brian Tolbert, head of local nonprofit Operation Turkey, also learned valuable lessons in charity when he was a kid in Bastrop. His family always cooked more than they could eat, so his mother had him walk down the railroad tracks, delivering meals to people in the community. Even though he admits back then he would rather have been playing Atari, those memories surfaced when Richard Bagdonas, who founded Operation Turkey in 2000 by serving a single plate, asked Tolbert to take the reins in 2010.
Bagdonas had grown Operation Turkey from that one plate in 2000 into an organization with 3,500 to 4,000 volunteers. Each year, he had identified more homeless people in need of hot meals on the holiday. By 2010 – Bagdonas' last year as executive director – they served 4,000 meals. For Tolbert, the next step was to begin spreading Operation Turkey to other cities in Texas. San Marcos was the first, followed by Dallas, Houston, and Lubbock. Now across five states and 10 different cities, Tolbert estimates they'll serve 30,000 meals altogether this year. Austin's share is around 8,000, up 2,000 from last year.
Operation Turkey uses restaurant kitchens to prepare their meals (except the turkeys, which are smoked separately). Tolbert prefers to use large-scale chains because it helps with expanding the organization into other states, removing some of the headache of continually finding new places to operate. Last year, he approached Güero's Taco Bar about using their facility. He was given permission – but the owners were skeptical.
"So Thanksgiving Day comes around, and I can see it in Cathy's face," Tolbert said. "She was absolutely nervous. There's a ton of people around there. Nothing looks organized. I call it organized chaos. I tell everybody, 'What you are about to see is organized chaos.' We get in there, we do our thing. We tell people, 'Do this, this, this.' People fall into place, and it becomes this well-oiled machine in a short amount of time.
"And Rob, Cathy's husband, I'll never forget, there in the middle of the event he kind of takes me over to the side and he says, 'Brian, you know what, when you first came in, you sat down at the table and told us that you were going to bring a thousand plus people here, you were going to turn this chaos into organization. He straight up said, excuse my French: 'I thought you were full of shit,'" Tolbert said, laughing.
Tolbert understands Guzman's motives for bringing her grandchildren to Meals on Wheels for Thanksgiving. Even though at the time he'd have rather been doing something else, he says he still looks back on his childhood memories of feeding people with fondness.
"It apparently gave me a base foundation about what giving is about." Wanting to stay at home "was me being a selfish child. Plain and simple," he said. "And so I realized real quick I better stop being selfish."
"A Way to Feel Love"
Bob Batlan, an Austin Interfaith board member, belongs to Temple Beth Shalom in Northwest Austin, so he admits he thought it was a little odd when the service committee chair at his wife Mary Lou's church, Westlake United Methodist, offered him a seat. That was in 2001. Shortly after Batlan joined, the group began organizing to help Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a Catholic service organization founded in 1998 to feed Austin's hungry. Bob and Mary Lou were soon "hooked."
"Because of that, Bob leads three groups from Westlake Methodist that still have specific turns that they volunteer monthly with Mobile Loaves," said Mary Lou. "And he leads four groups from Temple Beth Shalom, our Jewish congregation, in their service work for Mobile Loaves four times a month. We're frequent flyers there."
Mobile Loaves trucks serve 1,000 meals to the homeless Downtown. For Thanksgiving they hold a feast to feed 500, which this year fell on Monday, Nov. 23. With a trailer equipped with a grill – dubbed the Goodness Grill – they can smoke up to 28 turkeys at a time. Local cover band Buzz & the Blue Cats performed, and Austin-based sock company Mitscoots brought gifts. Last year a group of cosmetology students from Aveda Institute offered free haircuts. Starting at 5:30pm, Downtown's homeless population was treated to an evening of being waited on.
"A lot of them are usually kind of lonely on the holidays," said Trudy Six, commissary manager for St. John Neumann Catholic Church. "So this is a way for them to be with their peers, their friends, and also be served a free meal. A free, dignified meal – it's not just a turkey sandwich. It's an actual meal. They're able to fellowship, sit with people they normally wouldn't talk to. Our volunteers sit with them, and chat with them. It's just a way for them to feel love at a time [when] if you don't have any loved ones around you, it's pretty lonely."
Bob Batlan admits before his experience with MLF, he wasn't personally touched by homelessness. He says through this service he and those he's recruited have had their conventions challenged.
"I think the overwhelming thought is that they were just as surprised as I was that the people that we're serving are so gracious, and so thankful, and friendly," said Bob. "And a lot of them are parents of young kids, and they're really thankful that their kids get to have that experience, and learn that there should be no stigma, but also grateful for what they have."
According to the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas, 1.8 million children in the state are food insecure (defined by the USDA as a "household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food"). That's almost 30%, which is about six points higher than the national average. The Salvation Army is intimately familiar with that statistic; Jan Gunter, communications and community relations director of SA's Austin-area command, said 74% of the people they sheltered last year were women and children.
"The fastest-growing population of those experiencing homelessness in Austin right now is women and children," said Gunter. "You don't see them out on the streets, so the public is not aware of them. But they're there, and they're on our waiting list, and they're living in our shelters, and they're struggling in this economy to make things work."
Salvation Army serves about 400 people a day. Unlike some other nonprofits, SA's number leaps to anywhere from 500 to 700 depending on how many people are in need that particular Thanksgiving. Like MLF, Gunter said the sign-up sheet for volunteers filled up in October. "The volunteer opportunity is always filled up way early," she said.
For the families staying in the Salvation Army shelter, the Thanksgiving feast is one of few bright spots as they work back toward "self-sufficiency."
"Whether that's a single mom with her children, and there's another mom there with her children, and the kids are playing together," said Gunter, "that's their holiday. They're experiencing that love, and joy, and connection with each other. It means everything. For children especially. Or for moms who are trying to protect their children. And this is a crisis for them to be experiencing homelessness."
Making Human Connections
Seven years ago, when Guzman's grandson turned 11, she decided it was time to pay it forward. Since then, she says, her grandson has had his eyes opened to other walks of life. The human connections you make on the delivery route, she says, last longer than any plate of food.
Last year, at the last house on Guzman's route, she and her grandson knocked on the doors, shouting, "Meals on Wheels," but nobody answered – so they left. Driving by later with her grandson on an unrelated errand, she went back and knocked again.
"And they had gone to church, and they had come home," Guzman said. "The lady was so happy, she said, 'Oh, we thought we missed y'all. I told my husband, what are we going to eat now? We missed our food.' I said, 'Oh, no, ma'am. I came back to ensure you got your food.' That was a good experience for me and my grandson."
Another experience that sticks out is when she and her grandson delivered meals to a retired teacher who always wanted to shake Isaiah's hand. Guzman remembers vividly how the woman told the boy to always "keep your mind open." "You're intelligent," she would tell him.
Did he understand what the elderly woman was trying to tell him? "He said, 'Yes, grandma, I understand what she was trying to tell me.'"
"It doesn't take much to just let these folks know that they haven't been forgotten," said Rosenfeld. "A cheerful family delivering a hot, nutritious meal, and spending five or 10 minutes with these folks, it can brighten up what might otherwise be a dreary day for them. They think about everyone else celebrating with family and friends, and they're home alone. We couldn't do this without the great folks in Central Texas, who take time out of their holidays to help others."