Thursday is Thanksgiving Day in the United States, a time when American families gather in their homes to recount their blessings and eat… and eat and eat - especially the traditional meal of turkey and pumpkin pie. But for those without a home or family, Thanksgiving can be a lonely time.
Fortunately, in most American communities, there are places where those on the outside can come on in for some home-cooked food and a sense of belonging, served up warm by caring volunteers. And New York City is no exception.
At noon, at the Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter on Manhattan's Upper East Side, a couple of days before the holiday, there's a hot lunch ready for the 75 or so homeless people who regularly come here for some nourishment and a friendly smile. But there will be double the number of diners - or clients - here on Thanksgiving… and, says shelter program director Patricia Cobb-Richardson, double the excitement.
"It's a very exciting day because we get many volunteers from the community who want to take this day, this opportunity, to give back," she says, "and the clients are very excited because their bellies are full of very delicious traditional turkey meals." Ms. Cobb-Richardson adds that shelter clients are also emotionally enriched by the experience "because there are many volunteers who come from the community and not only serve them food but serve them good will. And I think it is good will that lasts beyond the meal." Ms. Cobb-Richardson observes that the good will runs both ways - that the volunteers "get as good as they give."
"I think they come with their hearts open and they are eager to be around a community of people who may be poor, but certainly are not poor in heart. And they haven't had this exchange between another human being who has less than they do -- certainly not a home as they do. And they feel grateful. The clients also feel grateful," she says, "because they are treated as human beings with dignity and respect. So it's a very rich day for all of us."
The Thanksgiving feast itself will certainly be rich enough. It's being prepared by staff chef Lenny Stringer. He once worked in New York's finest restaurants, but decided to devote his talents to feeding the homeless. He offers a foretaste of Thursday's menu while stirring some soup.
"We've got turkey going, traditional turkey. We're doing a cornbread stuffing, which is sort of a southern thing. We're doing ham with a praline sauce. We're doing string beans with almonds… mashed potatoes, roasted egg plant, butternut squash, candied yams, salad…."
For Darius Demosthenes, 26, who has been living at this facility for six weeks, it is actually the promised macaroni and cheese that will help him most feel at home this Thanksgiving. But that's not all.
"… When you combine that in an intimate atmosphere… that is accepting and understanding of our situation and you set it up on a holiday like that, it becomes even more of a good feeling," he says. "I know that on this day, I may not have any family, I may be homeless, but I know that these people are feeding me. They love me as a human being and they care about my well-being."
Mr. Demosthenes adds that Thanksgiving is "a good time to reconnect with the people you love and friends and caretakers and hospitable individuals that you come across, and be really thankful to be alive."
Chef Lenny Stringer says that for him, being truly alive means giving his best to others.
"You give anyone your best. That's what my parents taught us," he says. "In settings like this you can use your food knowledge and cook great food for people who may not be doing as well as you are doing. That's what it's all about. Just work hard and everything just kind of works out for itself."
Mr. Stringer says that anyone can become homeless. "You could just have a breakup with your wife. Maybe you've got a gambling problem. Maybe you've got a bastard of a landlord who just decides he doesn't want you in his building anymore. I look at it as we are all kind of helping each other."
That's a sentiment all Americans can share -- and be grateful for -- this Thanksgiving Day.