By Peter Finney Jr.
Every Thanksgiving for the last 32 years, the YMCA of Greater New Orleans has mobilized a small army of meal-preparation volunteers that would make the commander of a special ops unit proud.
In a program called Home for the Holidays, more than 80 volunteers descend upon the industrial kitchen at Delgado Community College near City Park at 5 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day to prepare and individually package meals for 1,550 seniors, complete with a homemade dessert or two and a personalized, hand-drawn Thanksgiving card from students in the area.
Then, another 130 drivers personally deliver the meals in Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes to an average of five seniors each, most of whom are homebound.
Church members in action
“If there is a God-driven program, this is it,” said Donna Hildebrand, a parishioner of St. Ann Parish in Metairie who with her husband Ace and a team of volunteers, many from Catholic churches in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, have coordinated the program for years.
The YMCA gets the names of seniors who need meals on Thanksgiving from the Council on Aging in the three civil parishes, and Hildebrand’s crew springs into action, setting up delivery routes using mapping software and routing tips from the Meals on Wheels program.
Every aspect of the program is run with the efficiency of a military operation. The meal consists of carefully measured sliced turkey breast, cornbread dressing, gravy, sweet potatoes, rice and gravy, green peas, cranberry sauce, dinner roll, dessert, banana and juice.
The “lagniappe” – begun several years ago – is a homemade Thanksgiving card from a student. The participating schools this year are St. Ann, St. Catherine, St. Christopher, St. Dominic, St. Edward, Holy Name of Jesus, St. Mary Magdalen, St. Philip Neri, St. Pius X, Atonement Lutheran, Country Day, St. Paul’s Episcopal, Hynes and Keller.
The interaction between the residents, most of whom live alone, and the families who deliver the meals has been spiritually and emotionally profound, Hildebrand said.
“We limit our stops to five because we didn’t want it to be just somebody handing out a meal,” Hildebrand said. “We wanted to be able to spend a moment, because for the person getting the meal, you might be the only one they’re going to see all day.”
Fighting loneliness, isolation
If a senior isn’t home, the volunteers leave a card wishing them a happy Thanksgiving. “I’m thrilled when they’re not home because that means somebody else took them in for Thanksgiving,” Hildebrand said.
One year after Katrina, Hildebrand went with her son to deliver, and no one was home at the first two stops. At the third house, an elderly man in a wheelchair answered the door, and they were able to give him three meals.
“I told my son, ‘You see, if we hadn’t gone, that poor man probably wouldn’t have had anything to eat,” she said.
Another time Hildebrand went to a house, and a younger man answered the door. “He said, ‘Mrs. Smith was my mother, and she died last week,’” Hildebrand said. “I asked him if he would like the meal. The man said, ‘I was just sitting here praying, would I get something to eat today?’”
The program, which costs about $11,000 a year to run, has zero administrative costs and is funded by a YMCA garage sale, a few small grants and personal donations, including many from Catholic Church organizations. All of the labor comes from its volunteers.
Gordon Wadge, president and CEO of the YMCA, said entire families have created a tradition of delivering the meals together on Thanksgiving.
“Last year we had a family of three generations delivering,” Wadge said. “Grandma, mom and dad, and the kids who were teenagers – all go in the minivan together, and they’ve been doing this for 20 years, before the kids were even born. They told me, ‘This makes our Thanksgiving.’”
A family tradition
Some families may even bring a few extra food items to drop off “because that’s what they want to do,” Wadge said. “We’ve got some people who fly into town for the holiday to be with their New Orleans family, fully expecting they’re going to be part of the delivery team. That’s really cool to see.”
One of the favorite cards Hildebrand has seen came from a 3-year-old girl named Persephone who wrote about what she and her family did on Thanksgiving: “I go in mi cor to Gvae Fad.” (“I go in my car to give food.”)
“She drew a picture of a house and her stick people, and she said she was bringing people food,” Hildebrand said. “And, she’s still delivering today. Her family’s probably been delivering for 10 years.”
To learn more about how to volunteer for or donate to the program, go to www.ymcaneworleans.org and click on the Home for the Holidays link. There are enough people preparing food, Hildebrand said, but drivers are always needed. Call 568-9622.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.