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Bel Air and Havre de Grace churches open for Thanksgiving dinners

The holiday season is usually a time for families, friends and communities to come together, show their support for each other and give back to mankind.

It's an ideal that's been exemplified the past two Thanksgiving Days in Bel Air and for a quarter of a century in Havre de Grace during the annual community Thanksgiving Day dinner, an event that almost didn't happen this year.

For 25 years SMILES, for Service Makes an Individual's Life Extra Special, a volunteer service organization of Havre de Grace High School students, held a Thanksgiving dinner, first at the high school and then in the past few years at the adjacent St. Patrick Church Hall.

But at the end of the 2012-2013 academic year, SMILES quietly folded and the dinner organizers had to find other methods to raise the $4,500 to $5,500 needed to put the dinner continued.

Don Osman, retired Havre de Grace High School teacher and founder of SMILES, said the dinner committee reached out to local businesses and community leaders to ensure the dinner on.

"We did the dinners for 25 years and we weren't going to stop this year," Osman said.

Between cash donations and supplies given by local businesses such as The Bayou restaurant and the Weis grocery store on Route 40, the dinner continued this year as the "First Annual Havre de Grace Community Dinner."

But just because SMILES was gone, that didn't mean Havre de Grace High School students past and present wouldn't be there to help.

Donald Bowlen, 55, a 1977 graduate of Havre de Grace High School, was never a member of SMILES, which was founded in the 1980s. But, Osman, Bowlen's former wrestling coach and English teacher convinced him to help with the dinner in 1990 and he's been doing it every year since.

"The people are so grateful and I know for some of them it is the only meal they will have," Bowlen said. "Some have no family, are out of work, are elderly or their family is out of state."

Nicholas Hancock, 22, was a member of SMILES while attending Havre de Grace High School. Now, a 2013 graduate of the Naval Academy, he said returned every holiday season to volunteer and give back.

"There's such a wide variety of people who come in," Hancock said. "The best part is just sitting down and talking to people."

Hancock said he also enjoys meeting up with his high school friends as they help during the dinner.

"A lot of my close friends come back every year," Hancock said. "It's not your typical hangout spot."

Volunteers distributed more than 200 pies and close to 100 pounds of mashed potatoes along with turkey, greens and other fixings to residents who stopped by the church. Dinner organizers also delivered food to local shelters, senior living residences and individuals in the area.

Giving back in Bel Air

In Bel Air, differences in religious denomination did not keep two churches from opening their doors and breaking bread during Thanksgiving.

Members of New Hope Baptist Church joined the congregation of St. Margaret Parish to volunteer for the second annual community Thanksgiving Dinner.

New Hope Baptist Church members Daeneille Wells, 42, and her two daughters, Shakia Paralleau, 21, and Raven Wells, 16, were first time volunteers during the dinner.

"It was our first time, but we will definitely be coming back," the mom said. "So many people don't have anyone and are left out during the holiday. We were happy to see we made people's bellies happy."

More than 120 volunteers from the two churches made plates, served food and helped out during the dinner.

While families and individuals enjoyed their meals, Jeff Teates treated kids to ballon animals and hats. Kids also colored and played with sticker books.

Marie Dekowski, head of the St. Margaret adult faith formation ministry, said she received so many volunteers for the event she had to turn a few away. She said people really enjoy the chance to interact with others and give back.

"We know our homeless are taken care of with our many shelters," Dekowski said. "But there are so many parishioners and residents who are eating alone and by doing this we're allowing them to come fellowship with us."

Dekowski said the church is blessed to have such a diverse group of volunteers from so many different denominations.

"It's a true community effort," Dekowski said.

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