On Thursday morning, volunteers at the annual Bea Gaddy Thanksgiving luncheon worked themselves into a frenzy. Standing beside each other in a long line that snaked across a couple of halls, they passed down bags of food to one another at a breakneck pace, assembly-line fashion.

"It's very hectic," said one of the volunteers, Michelle Hoover of Edgemere.

The volunteers worked fast to keep up with the thousands of needy people — as many as 50,000 last year, according to organizers — who come to this luncheon every Thanksgiving. In addition to a warm meal, patrons also get to take away supplies to make their own holiday meal: two grocery bags full of stuffing, chicken parts, mac 'n' cheese and canned goods. There were even whole turkeys that some got to take home.

"We were shocked that there were so many people here," said Hoover, who was volunteering for the first time. "We're just happy to help."

Now in its 30th year, the luncheon's lines keep getting longer, said Sandra Chandler, founder Bea Gaddy's daughter. This year, she said, lines were 75 percent longer than they were last year.

Chandler usually gets to the Patterson Park Recreation Center at 3 in the morning to set up. It takes volunteers hours and hours to organize the dining tables and sort tens of thousands of bags of food.

In the past, people wouldn't start to line up outside the rec center until 7 a.m., she said. But this year, people started to stake their places around 4. And the lines just "kept getting enormous."

"I'm gonna blame it on the economy," she said. "But it could be a whole range of things. There's a lot of people who are struggling."

Patrons have also been getting to Patterson Park earlier, Chandler said, because there are more supplies to give out earlier in the morning.

By noon, a line of men, women and children, sometimes just clutching their jackets, other times holding on to grocery carts, stretched out from the center all the way to Baltimore Street.

Among them was Harvey Jackson, a 52-year-old from East Baltimore who was on crutches. Jackson worked in construction until an accident two months ago sidelined him. He's been getting some disability benefits since, but he, his wife and his daughter have been struggling to make ends meet.

While Jackson is the traditional family cook on Thanksgiving each year, he wasn't sure if the family was going to be able to afford a Thanksgiving meal this time — or if he was going to be able to cook on his crutches. The food giveaway at Bea Gaddy came as "a blessing."

"I'm gonna cook Thanksgiving dinner even if I have to sit down to do it," he said.

At the room with all the grocery bags, volunteers worked furiously fast to clear out the giant pile of food. Hoover said the pace hadn't let up since she got there at noon.

Hoover, who runs a business in Edgemere, wasn't planning on a Thanksgiving Day meal because some of her relatives were working. She decided to instead "do something useful" and volunteer with her two children, 10-year-old Ethan and 15-year-old Rachel, and her mother, Linda Hoffman.

"We feel good about that," she said.

Though the rush wouldn't subside until the end of the luncheon, she and her family said they were planning on staying on until 4 p.m. They also intend on coming back next year.

Said Hoffman, 65, "If I can handle it, so can they."

erik.maza@baltsun.com

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