Filling local needs with more than free meals during holidays

Arbutus Times
Local residents prepare to help those in need this Thanksgiving

As many people in the Arbutus and Lansdowne area begin to make their final preparations for Thanksgiving, several area residents are preparing to bring Thanksgiving to those in need.

At Southwest Emergency Services, located on the 1201 Maple Ave. campus of the Arbutus United Methodist Church, founder Betty Okonski has been working for weeks to get ready for a busy holiday season.

The organization, which began 33 years ago out of Okonski's dining room closet, provides assistance to local homeless and those facing the risk of eviction or having their water or electric service shut off in the 21227 ZIP code.

When the temperatures drop, Okonski said, the need increases. Last month, Okonski said, her organization gave away almost $5,000 in assistance with electric bills.

"We're doing much more now in BGE than we are in eviction protection," she said.

While the state offers some help for residents unable to pay their electric bills, the process often takes longer than the residents — many of whom were relucent to ask for help in the first place, and therefore waited until the last moment to address the problem — have, Okonski said.

The arrival of Thanksgiving at SWES means the organization's annual toy giveaway is approaching. On Dec. 11, Okonski said, pre-approved clients will be invited to come pick out toys they'd like to take home as Christmas gifts for the family's children.

The group is still in need of toy donations, she said, as well as items that are constantly in high demand at the center, such as underwear, blankets, towels and travel-size soaps and shampoos, she said.

SWES is also hoping to put together baking boxes this holiday season to hand out to clients, she said. With a large supply of sugar donated by Domino Sugar, they need community members to donate flour, chocolate chips, oatmeal and peanut butter to make the project possible, she said.

While SWES doesn't offer the ingredients for a turkey dinner through its pantry, its close relationships with several area churches mean volunteers can point clients to a number of different Thanksgiving meals hosted around the area.

SWES' landlord, the Arbutus United Methodist Church, hosts a dinner for about 200 area residents on Thanksgiving, complete with waiters who take clients' orders, Okonski said. Anyone is welcome to attend that dinner at the church, for some companionship and a traditional, hot meal, she said. There is also dinner delivery for residents who may be unable to leave their home.

"The Arbutus [church's dinner] is a church-wide, communitywide dinner," she said.

She often urges her clients to take advantage of that dinner, she said.

When she talks about Thanksgiving with the residents who come to her for help, she said, she asks, "How long has it been since you went out to dinner, you didn't have to cook it and you didn't have to clean it and it was brought to you?"

For those who may not be able to make it to the Thanksgiving meal in Arbutus, Okonski recommends the Thanksgiving dinner offered on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving at the Lansdowne United Methodist Church, 114 Lavern Ave.

Longtime Riverview resident Betty Cain runs the Thanksgiving dinner just as she runs all of the other dinners the church offers.

The holiday dinner began about five years ago, she said, after she realized that many of the people who attend the regular Wednesday night dinners the church hosts would probably benefit from a special meal offered for the holiday.

For two years, she said, she hosted the meal on Thanksgiving, but switched it to the night before a few years ago and has had success ever since.

This year, she said she expects about 200 people to take advantage of the dinner Wednesday night and enjoy the turkey, stuffing and pie. Many of those visitors, she said, will come from the Kessler Park and Coursey Station senior apartments. Others come from walking distance of the church. But anyone is welcome, she said.

"You never know who's going to show up. You might have 50 people, you might have 100," she said

Food will also be delivered to those who cannot make the trip to the church to get it, she said.

For those who make it to the church — "If you can walk and talk, you can come up and eat," Cain said — it's all-you-can-eat.

"You can come back [for second helpings] all you want, as long as you eat it," she said.

The process of cooking a turkey dinner for 200 people begins Tuesday, Cain said.

Though the first year's turkeys were all purchased by Cain and other volunteers, turkeys this year have all been donated, along with many of the other ingredients needed for dinner.

After years of cooking meals for a crowd, Cain said she's learned a few tricks to help lighten the burden.

She and her helpers, many of whom come from local churches and the Riverview Community Association, cut the turkey up before beginning to cook it. "Otherwise we'd be here for 24 hours," she said.

Still, she said, she's always looking for more volunteers. At least 10 people are needed to help run the event, which sets up at 2 p.m. and usually wraps up around 7 p.m., she said.

"Bring them and we'll put them to work," she said.

For information about dinners offered through the Lansdowne United Methodist Church, call the church at 410-247-4624.

For information on SWES, call 410-247-8154 or visit the thrift store during its regular business hours, Monday through Friday from 9 to 11:30 a.m.

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