Third-graders at Roye-Williams Elementary School met the heroine of a tall tale last week, and her real life story almost topped the one they concocted about her.
Baltimore homeless advocate Bea Gaddy visited Mary Volpe's third-grade class Wednesday to listen to their version of her life, "Balldemer Bea" -- and to set a few facts straight.
"Oh my," she said, when she heard that Balldemer Bea caught 1 million crabs in the Chesapeake Bay. She used them, of course, to make free crab cake sandwiches for the homeless.
"Wonderful," she said, when she heard that Balldemer Bea reads 200 cookbooks a day.
It was the students' turn to gasp, though, when they learned about the real Bea Gaddy.
She may not have baked her own birthday cake the day she was born, but her organization fed 29,000 people last Thanksgiving Day. News of that feat made 8-year-old Catrina Jones' jaw drop. She couldn't believe Ms. Gaddy could feed that many people in one day.
The story of Balldemer Bea is a composite of ideas from Mrs. Volpe's students. The story grew out of a lesson in American tall tales and their heroes, Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill and others. Mrs. Volpe was concerned that no character was black or female.
"So we created our own tale, and we used Bea Gaddy because she's local," Mrs. Volpe said.
They then sent Ms. Gaddy a copy of the story and invited her to visit. "I appreciate it greatly," Ms. Gaddy said.
She had her own amazing story to tell the students. Once homeless herself, Ms. Gaddy's work for the poor and homeless in Baltimore has received national attention, especially the annual Thanksgiving dinner she spearheads.
She said she first collected food for the poor in her Patterson Park neighborhood in Baltimore by taking a borrowed trash can to store owners and asking them to fill it with leftover food. At her first Thanksgiving meal for the poor in 1981, she served food bought with the winnings of a 50-cent lottery ticket. "I just feel sometimes that prayers are answered before I ask them," she said.
Ms. Gaddy still sleeps in the basement of the East Baltimore rowhouse that serves as the headquarters for her Patterson Park Emergency Food Center.
The mother of five adult children had many encouraging words for the students. "I want them to learn commitment, openness, honesty, a willing to get up and do, get on the right track and keep going," she said.