Leon Purnell learned to give back to the community at an early age.
When he was just 10 years old, he first noticed his late mother, Betty, cooking for her Johnston Square neighbors, teaching Sunday school and helping out at the daycare program at First Baptist Church in Dunbar-Broadway where he and his mom attended.
“She was really nurturing and caring,” he said.
These were values he admired that his mom instilled in him. Throughout his adult life, Purnell has attempted to invest in his community much the way his mom did.
In 1997, Purnell started working as the executive director of the Men and Families Center in the Caring Active Restoring Efforts (CARE) neighborhood, just east of the Johns Hopkins Hospital campus in East Baltimore. A year later, he started a Thanksgiving and Christmas giveaways of food, clothing and toys.
The center, a nonprofit launched in 1995, serves about 1,500 families per year with services including assistance with finding housing, job placement, and applying for health insurance.
This year’s Thanksgiving giveaway will be held at 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Center in CARE. A week’s worth of food, including a turkey, canned vegetables and bread, will be given to 50 families. About 400 pounds of food will be distributed in total, at an estimated cost of $1,500, according to Purnell.
This is not the only Thanksgiving food giveaway in Baltimore.
Sisters with A Plan, which serves unhoused people, will provide warm meals at noon Wednesday at Healthcare for the Homeless at 421 Fallsway downtown. The Abbott Memorial Presbyterian Church will host a Thanksgiving lunch at noon Thursday in Highlandtown.
For many, such giveaways are their only way to have turkey.
Fells Point resident Maxine Baker, 74, began receiving turkeys from the Men and Families Center two years ago. She said she wouldn’t have a turkey if it weren’t for the nonprofit.
“My turkey lasts me seven days. I eat it for breakfast. I eat it for lunch. I eat it for dinner,” she said. “That’s a week’s meal for me because I don’t eat that much at one serving.”
The center’s Christmas giveaway will be held at 10:30 a.m. Dec. 22 at the Elmer A. Henderson: A Johns Hopkins Partnership School on Ashland Avenue in East Baltimore. Toys and clothing will be distributed to 40 children who will be selected from the Commodore John Rodgers School, Collington Square Elementary/Middle School, William Paca Elementary School and Gardenville Elementary School. The overall value of the giveaway will be about $6,000, according to Purnell.
Since the Thanksgiving distribution started more than 20 years ago, Purnell said that the center — whose budget of about $350,000 is funded by grants and donations — has provided assistance to at least 100 families each year. However, due to declining financial support, he reduced that number to 50 this year.
“The giving is not as great now as prior to the pandemic,” Purnell said. “Because of the economy, with gas prices and food [being] much higher than they were before, it takes more money to actually pull off what we do every year.”
Baltimore City Councilman Antonio Glover, a Democrat whose district includes CARE, applauds the center for its efforts and assists it with raising money.
By the end of the month, he said he and Mayor Brandon Scott will deliver a check for $25,000 to the nonprofit with funds from the mayor’s office.
“We are really grateful to have [the center] in our community,” he said. “It helps with opportunities around the holiday [for people] to be able to have food on the table and for every kid in the neighborhood to wake up on Christmas with a toy.”
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Purnell, 69, was born in the Johnston Square area. He now lives with his girlfriend in the Loch Raven in Northeast Baltimore and has two children and one grandchild.
He received a bachelor’s degree in social science from Morgan State University in 1978 and a master’s in education from Coppin State University in 1992.
Prior to running the Men and Families Center, his roles included working as a therapist for the Johns Hopkins Hospital and a counselor for the Woodland Job Corps in Laurel.
In addition to the Thanksgiving and Christmas giveaways, Purnell started a back-to-school giveaway more than 20 years ago, providing bookbags, pencils, rulers and other supplies, to more than 200 children living in CARE.
Despite donations having slowed in recent years, he believes community members are equally interested in giving back — it’s just a matter of time.
“I envision us going back to what we used to do on a large scale,” he said.
This article is part of our Newsmaker series, which profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at firstname.lastname@example.org.