A feast fit for many

The Baltimore Sun

While one Baltimore began shopping and planning for a Thanksgiving feast yesterday, another lined up around the block in a poor and careworn section of West Baltimore to accept free food and the generosity of strangers.

More than 2,000 people -- from great-grandmothers to toddlers -- waited quietly, for hours, in a cold line that stretched around the block in the historic Upton neighborhood off Pennsylvania Avenue.

For two hours, they funneled down a corridor of crowd barriers to collect food provided by Autumn Harvest 2006, a relief campaign organized by Virginia-based Operation Blessing International and held at different inner-city sites each year.

Each adult left with two small white bags of food -- potatoes and onions, soups, canned vegetables, boxed cereals and other nonperishable packaged foods. And each child went away with a bag of toys and goodies. It might not have seemed like much, but it was most welcome.

Berdell Felder, 68, who planned to spend Thanksgiving with her daughter, three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, wasn't exactly sure what was in the bags she wheeled away from the distribution site off Pennsylvania Avenue, between McMechen and Mosher streets.

No matter. "It's wonderful. Praise God," she said.

It was the eighth year for Autumn Harvest in Baltimore, sponsored by the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods, the Baltimore Ravens, M&T; Bank and United Parcel Service.

"A lot of times the folks on line have fallen on tough times and don't get the assistance they need. And a lot of times their cupboards are empty," said Pam Erickson, a vice president for Operation Blessing.

"Our goal is to break the cycle of suffering. Even if it's a break that lasts only a day, it allows them to feel valued and feel that we care," she said.

As many as 200 volunteers from the Ravens, M&T; Bank and UPS arrived early to break down pallets of food -- an estimated $50,000 worth that arrived on two Operation Blessing tractor-trailers.

They repackaged it into 3,300 grocery bags for distribution, beginning at noon, to a crowd that started lining up at daybreak.

"I do it simply because of the very basic connection of giving food to a fellow human being," said Phil Hosmer, 44, of Bel Air. A corporate relations official, he was one of 60 M&T; Bank employees -- from managers to tellers and security personnel -- who volunteered to help out.

"It's very gratifying," he said. "There is tremendous need in this community."

Word of this year's Autumn Harvest giveaway was spread by fliers, through neighborhood churches and community organizations, according to Tony White, Baltimore's director of neighborhood communications.

"We like to call it the beginning of the season of giving," White said.

Larry Burrell, 55, heard about it on the radio. He lives nearby at McCulloh and Dolphin streets, he said. Short on money, he decided to walk over "and see if I could get something for myself, and for an elderly neighbor who's real sick."

But Burrell is blind, and walks with a white cane. So when Leroy Anderson, 39, saw him making his way to the Autumn Harvest, he took Burrell's arm and stayed with him -- a total stranger -- throughout the long hours on line.

"The brother's got a good heart," Burrell said of Anderson. "I'm so blessed, I think I'm twins."

The event also drew a 28-foot mobile outreach van from the Maryland Society for Sight, a federally supported, nonprofit project to provide eye exams and glaucoma screening to the needy.

Kathy Curtain, executive director of the program, said 60 people were examined.

"We found quite a few in the early stages [of glaucoma, which can lead to blindness]," she said. "Many needed eye exams and glasses."

The glaucoma patients were referred to University of Maryland Medical Center. Those in need of glasses received vouchers to obtain them at Wal-Mart.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who lives six blocks from the distribution site, said it takes an event like this one to reveal the community's real need.

"We have neighbors who are almost starving," he said.

Cummings, a Democrat representing the 7th District, thanked everyone who volunteered and supported the event, comparing it to the outpouring of generosity after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. "Sad to say, we have a New Orleans right here in Baltimore."

The holiday food relief effort in West Baltimore wasn't the only one in the city yesterday. On Sisson Street in Hampden, and at HarborView in Federal Hill, 60 volunteers for the "adopt-a-turkey" program distributed 2,300 boxes of food to more than 60 nonprofit food-relief organizations.

Each box was packed with a 15-pound turkey and all the ingredients for a complete Thanksgiving for 10 to 14 people.

Launched 10 years ago by HarborView developer Richard A. Swirnow and his son David, the program has since grown sevenfold and attracted financial support and in-kind services from other businesses and individuals.

"We do it to give back," David Swirnow said. "We're trying to be a role model for others like ourselves, and more importantly for family members, to teach our kids what it means to be successful in society. And philanthropy is absolutely the best way to teach your children how to be a better human being."


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