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Thanksgiving Day meals make holiday season brighter in Bay Area

It didn’t take Toby Chacon long to clean his plate on Thanksgiving Day.

“I was hungry,” said the San Jose resident. “I was waiting for it for two days.”

Fortunately for Chacon and others in attendance, seconds —and thirds, as much as hungry diners wanted — were being handed out at a CityTeam ministries Thanksgiving event on Thursday in San Jose, one of many such meals across the Bay Area, as volunteers reached out to people in their communities who don’t have access to many comforts that residents take for granted.

In San Jose, volunteers and staff members at the nonprofit joined forces to provide free hot meals for an expected 300-plus individuals, filling bellies with turkey, mashed potatoes and all the trimming while putting plenty of big grins on faces that might not have otherwise had much to smile about during the holiday.

“I wouldn’t have had Thanksgiving,” Chacon says. “I’m homeless so I wouldn’t have anywhere to go.”

Seeing people enjoying the occasion together in the dining room — as opposed to just lining up to receive to-go Thanksgiving meals, as was the case during the pandemic — gave organizers another reason to be thankful.

“We are excited because it’s the first year that we have been able to bring people back indoors,” says Steven Martinez, program director for CityTeam.

Smiles also abounded at Oakland’s Two Star Market, where a long-held Thanksgiving Day celebration went from a takeout operation in 2020 to a sit-down meal (with social distancing restrictions) in 2021 to this year’s, which felt like a shared experience once again.

“It’s an amazing tradition,” said former Oakland Mayor Jean Quan. She has been involved in the event for years and made Brussels sprouts and pecans for this year’s feast. “It’s one of the nicest mixes in Oakland, both in the variety of food and the variety of people.”

This year’s feast marked the event’s 20th year, all in the parking lot of Two Star Market in Oakland’s Dimond District. It began as a way for the market’s owners to practice their Muslim faith and tend to the needs of others — catering a meal for whomever could show up. That first year was a humble affair, with about 50 people in attendance.

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Now, it’s a community institution.

On Thursday, 150 volunteers buzzed around the market’s parking lot — ferrying food to serving tables, grilling scores of chicken legs and doling out dozens of pieces of pie under sunny, idyllic skies. They planned to serve 1,000 meals — including about 800 to people lined up down the block from their market. Organizers also planned to deliver meals to several nearby senior homes, in case their residents couldn’t make the trip.

“It turned out to be very communal — a day of celebration,” said Farouq Alawdi, 35, a co-owner of the Two Star Market.

“It’s a tradition — it brings a whole background of nationalities and religions together,” said Joseph Kearse, 55, who has volunteered at the event for eight years.

The meal is open to anyone, resulting in a broad, diverse mix of people. Neighbors of the market eat next to people experiencing homelessness — bringing residents together even despite the challenges some face, organizers said.

Having snagged a plate of turkey, grilled chicken and spaghetti, Trina Hewitt reveled in the feeling of community.

She first attended the event in 2008, when she was homeless and sleeping nearby. Now a resident of Alameda, she made sure to keep her annual streak of attending alive.

“With all that’s going on in the world, I can come here and feel the same — they make you feel so welcome,” Hewitt said.

Organizers cooked 80 turkeys and prepared about 15 side dishes for the event, said Farouq Alawdi, 35, a co-owner of the Two Star Market. They included Brussels sprouts, collard greens, stuffing, yams, rice, spaghetti, mashed potatoes and gravy. They also served at least three types of pie — pecan, pumpkin and apple.

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What CityTeam delivered in San Jose was also a monumental production, serving up 62 turkeys, 400 pounds of potatoes, 300 pounds of vegetables, 250 pounds of stuffing and other treats — including a tantalizing assortment of desserts.

Chef Reynolds Stewart was running the show from behind his walker, which he says he uses because he needs hip replacement surgery. Even though getting around is difficult for him, Stewart says that he definitely wasn’t going to miss being a part of the important occasion.

“Our meal is very special to us because we want to served the homeless community like they haven’t been served before,” he said.

Food was only part of the equation at the CityTeam event, as volunteers also gave out clothing and hygiene kits to those who needed them. There was even a foot-washing station.

“Jesus did it to His disciples,” Martinez said. “It’s one of the most humbling things you can do.”

Some 40 volunteers devoted part of their day to the event. A number of those people live onsite as part of CityTeam’s Renew addiction recovery program.

“I’ve found there is a life after addiction,” said volunteer and resident Richard Romero, who has been sober for six months. “I was never really sober unless I was in jail.

“I don’t want to go back to the old life.”

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