Tornado victims give thanks on holiday

Karen Brown came to the Thanksgiving dinner organized by the city of Baltimore and the American Red Cross full of gratitude.

For each hug she gave out, she seemed to have two thank-yous for the help she's received since a tornado swept through her townhome last week. The storm came through Northeast Baltimore and Parkville on Nov. 17, causing extensive damage to homes, trees and utilities.

"I have new friends and additional family," Brown said. "That's the police, the Red Cross, the SWAT team, the city … you name it. Everybody who had something to do with putting us back together and helping us to get our life back together, I send much praise to every one of them."

She stopped, realizing she almost forgot one — animal control. Employees were patient as she searched for her cat, she said.

The Thanksgiving dinner was held in the W.E.B. DuBois High School cafeteria, provided by Classic Catering People, along with the Red Cross and Mayor's Office of Emergency Management.

The idea of a dinner came immediately to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake when she witnessed the effects of the storm.

"This is just a small way to help them to get back to normal, to get back to their families and their own traditions, and quite frankly, it's a very tasty way as well," the mayor said. "Hopefully, it will be a good substitute for their home cooking."

Loretta Birchett said she was most thankful for her dachshund, Toots, whom she credits with pulling her to safety from the storm.

Birchett said the dog's ears stood straight up in the air and she started pulling Birchett by the shirt to nudge her off the bed in the Mount Pleasant Heights apartment. The dog then jumped off the bed. As Birchett went to get her, the ceiling started "peeling back like a can."

"We got everybody out and everybody's OK. That's the most important thing," Birchett said.

She usually has Thanksgiving dinner with her two brothers. This year, they dined together at the high school. Her brother, Ronnie Askew, said the dog repaid a favor in saving Birchett.

"Somebody gave her the dog. She saved the dog's life and the dog returned the gift," Askew said.

Volunteer Debra Freeland held Toots as Birchett went to get a plate of food. Freeland was joined by her parents and husband in volunteering for the holiday. Her father, Charles Peeling, wanted a nontraditional Thanksgiving and left it to Freeland and her husband, Larry — both longtime Red Cross volunteers — to work out the details.

"I think it's fun," Freeland said. "I would hope that someone would want to do this for me."

Her mother, Jessie Peeling, said they usually spend Thanksgiving at home with family cooking turkeys. This was a nice change, she said.

"It's a wonderful idea. I have enjoyed it. People are friendly and doing a good job," Peeling said.

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