Bea Gaddy center plans Thanksgiving dinner despite financial woes

Cynthia Brooks is not about to let a recession, dwindling donations or a disconnected phone stop her from helping the needy. The executive director of the Bea Gaddy Family Center in East Baltimore is keeping the doors open and moving forward with plans to serve Thanksgiving dinner to 50,000 people despite the center's financial woes.

The center, founded by Brooks' mother, the late city councilwoman, is barely meeting the ever increasing demand for help. The floor-to-ceiling shelves for canned goods are often empty, and the leased refrigerated containers, which were mostly bare, are gone because the center couldn't afford them. The phones don't ring, shut off for lack of payment.

"If you have to choose between putting food on the shelf or paying the phone bill, you will choose food," Brooks said.

The nonprofit, outreach center on North Chester Street has fallen on difficult times, but it still plans to host its 29th annual Thanksgiving dinner next month at the Patterson Park Recreation Center.

"We know we will do the dinner because we have faith," said Brooks. "We are just going through a storm now. We have been through many and always come out of it."

Two weeks ago, the shelves were down to a few jars of baby food. Then, a food drive at a city church and a donation from a local bakery replenished the supplies.

"Just when things get bad, something good happens," Brooks said.

Volunteers have faith in the tenacity of their supporters, which include many area churches and the inmates at Roxbury Correctional Institute in Hagerstown. A Bible fellowship group at the prison sent the center a check for $117.48, from wages inmates earned. The note that accompanied the check said, "We thank God for your ministry and pray that it continues."

That donation was among the few that trickled in last month. Gifts typically pick up as Thanksgiving and the holidays approach, sometimes as much as $8,000 a month, Brooks said.

The time of year has little effect on the lines of the hungry that only get longer. In the middle of a torrential rain last week, an elderly man arrived at the door and said he would appreciate anything to ease his hunger. He left with a sack of food, one of the typical 45 bags doled out daily.

The hard economic times are also causing more people to use the center's services, Brooks said.

"Everyone is struggling in this economy, even a lot of those who used to help us," she said. "We are seeing a lot of new faces because people know we are here and they come to us for help."

She and six other volunteers who operate the center remain optimistic.

"We are doing the best we can and stretching everything we got," said Gwen Lawson, a volunteer for 27 years. "Times are hard, but we are surviving."

A local meat processor has promised to deliver 70,000 pounds of turkey next month.

"I know the rest of Thanksgiving dinner will come together, because the citizens of Maryland will help us, just like they always do," Brooks said.

Brooks is retired from the U.S. Army, where she worked in human resources for many years. Wherever she was stationed, she would make it home to help her mother with the Thanksgiving feast that Gaddy began in 1981 with about 40 diners. The center served 50,000 last year.

When Gaddy died in 2001, her daughter took over the center. Brooks is determined to continue the dinner tradition, she said.

"Working here keeps me close to my mother," she said. "I won't let her down."

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