D.C. volunteers serve up food and connection on Thanksgiving


Janet “Jaye” Davis moved from one foil tray to another, scooping out portions of turkey and ham for those who had assembled outside So Others Might Eat’s brick building Thursday in the early-morning chill.

As she surveyed the plates, moving down an assembly line of volunteers inside SOME’s dining room in Northwest Washington, Davis felt she was called here to dole out more than stuffing and collards to the homeless and hungry who would soon line the festively decorated tables. On this Thanksgiving, her first at home in almost 12 years, Davis wanted to offer up a helping of hope.

Davis, 44, had spent the past 11 years in prison for a robbery she committed years ago. Before that, she said, she struggled with addiction — a dark cycle that landed her on 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 around the D.C. area gather with churches and community groups to serve hot meals to hundreds of Washingtonians, when Davis looked out into the room, she saw people who reminded her of her own journey and her own struggles.

“I’m thankful for these people. I’m thankful I get 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 shuffled the tray in front of her, eyes downcast at the glistening cuts of meat.

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

Davis was one of hundreds of volunteers who mobilized throughout the District this week to provide hot meals for homeless and low-income individuals and families at a time when, experts said, ongoing economic instability and pandemic-related hardships have contributed to a high rate of need.

The District’s largest food pantry, Bread for the City, last week shut down its Thanksgiving turkey giveaway early for the first time in its 30-year history, after overwhelming demand raised tensions and safety concerns.

Last week, D.C. Central Kitchen distributed 1,260 turkeys to two dozen community organizations to give away and provided more than 500 pantry bags of shelf-stable food items to students in D.C. public schools. The organization didn’t slow down this week, cooking more than 12,000 servings of sides and carving up trays of turkey to send to homeless and women’s shelters, a veterans group, the Salvation Army and other nonprofits.

On Thursday afternoon, delivery trucks idled outside D.C. Central Kitchen’s downtown headquarters as a crew of cooks and other staff inside hustled to get the last trays of food out the door.

The mood was focused — but festive.

Stacks of cornbread, enormous pots of green beans and vats of gravy filled every corner of the kitchen. Hair-netted workers rolled platters of turkey, carved and ready, through the halls as hip-hop played and several in the kitchen broke in to a shimmy.

“I love being here today,” said kitchen staff member Charles Walker, who took culinary classes at D.C. Central Kitchen after being released from prison in 2010. “We really prepare these meals with love and care so they can go out and feed people who need it.”

Each of the thousands of side dishes doled out by SOME and D.C. 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, season stuffing and prep thousands of pounds of food in just under three hours.

They readied apple crumble and coleslaw by the mound, chopped countless green beans and skinned bushels of yams.

For some, the food preparation is a holiday tradition.

Sarah Rabin Spira, 44, and her husband, Mark Spira, 49, met at the JCC 17 years ago. They’ve been volunteering together ever since.

It’s how they kick off the holiday season, Rabin Spira said. And now that the kids are old enough, she said, they bring them along too.

“It’s a whole-family affair,” she said.

Other families, like the Wetmores, are newer to the event, which began pre-pandemic and picked up again this year. But if Alex, 10, and Ayla, 6, have anything to say about it, they’ll be back again next year.

“I like how it’s fun and it’s for a good cause and you know you’re going to help people, so that makes it even more extra fun,” Alex said as he concentrated hard on splitting celery stalks with a chef’s knife.

Next to him, Ayla wrestled with the cap on a carton of vegetable broth.

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

For some of the regulars who come often to eat hot meals at SOME, it’s the volunteers who make the holiday feel special, said Daryl Wright, the vice president of emergency services.

“It’s not just that they’re here serving. It’s the sitting down, the talking to people, having something like that family connection with people,” Wright said Thursday. “That’s what you lose being homeless — not just having a hot meal but having that connection.”

For Davis, who remembers clearly what it felt like to be living on the street or locked up and away from her family, that connection to people who want to help is what allowed her to emerge from her addiction and years of incarceration.

This year, she said, she even regained custody of her 13-year-old son, Correll, a tall, talkative boy who joined her at SOME on Thursday to volunteer in the coat room, organizing donations of warm-weather clothes.

Correll doesn’t know a lot about his mom’s time on the streets, he said. They haven’t talked much about it.

But Davis said she will when he’s ready. She wants to deliver to him the same message she doled out 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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