For more than 25 years, Operation Helping Hand has been there to make sure every Fort George G. Meade service member has the Thanksgiving dinner they and their families deserve.
On Monday, the annual food drive garnered enough donations for 200 Thanksgiving dinners.
Operation Helping Hand — Harvest for the Hungry is the result of an interdenominational collaboration between religious communities on the installation. They included congregations from the Main Post Chapel, Argonne Hills Chapel Center and Calvary Chapel.
“This is a way for us to bless the Fort Meade community and say, ‘We care about you, we love you, we want to meet a need,” Garrison Family Life Chaplain (Maj.) Dwayne Hughes said. “So if there’s a need, we want to try to meet that.”
While each religious community asked its congregation for donations and volunteer service, anyone affiliated with the installation could help.
“It’s just to make sure that folks are able to have a nice Thanksgiving dinner,” Garrison Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Stephen Pratel Sr. said. “We provide the essentials they need to make sure that they can have a nice Thanksgiving dinner and not have to pinch [pennies] or take away from another area.”
Pratel said Fort Meade’s civilian workforce was included in this year’s outreach.
“We wanted to make sure that we’re not just focusing on [military] but all those who are serving, because whether you’re in uniform or not, if you’re in government service, you’re still serving our country,” he said.
Each chapel community asked units on the installation to submit names of families in need to their unit chaplains. Chaplains then notified the Religious Support Office, which organized a list of beneficiaries, who in turn submitted a written form.
Everyone who submitted a form received a box of food. Boxes were uniform and included Thanksgiving staples like a turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce, among other food items and beverages.
Setting up shop at Argonne Hills Chapel Center, organizers arrived around 7:30 a.m. to organize about 10 separate stations with donated food items for volunteers to stock the meal boxes.
By 10 a.m., the hallways of the chapel were alive with chatter and packed by lively civilians and service members alike, snaking through stations with large meal boxes.
Opportunity To Help
Unit representatives arrived after 1 p.m. to pick up boxes to deliver.
“I heard of an opportunity to come out and help during the holiday season. And why not lend a helping hand?” said volunteer Scarlett Montgomery of Meuse Forest. “We’re people. All we can do is help each other.
“If we don’t have each other, then we don’t have anybody.”
Hardships still befall even those with a paycheck, which sometimes leads to individuals hesitating to speak up about their situation.
“There’s a lot of people out there in need and a lot of people are unfortunately proud and afraid to ask,” said organizer Nichole Johnson of Severn. “We go in with an understanding that pride gets in the way and we want to make sure everybody knows that. Regardless of what they ask for, we see a need.
“We want to make sure we fill that need and let them know they’re loved and they’ll receive that blessing from that aspect.”
Hardships come in many forms, though, and it’s not always financial.
Marine Gunnery Sgt. James Artel of Potomac Place picked up a box for a Marine who, within the last week, moved into a new place and had a baby.
“Things like this help to make [newcomers] feel invited and welcome,” he said. “It’s huge. You can’t put a price on morale, right?
“Part of intrusive leadership — and leadership in general — is knowing how your people are doing, and sometimes things fall through the cracks. Things like this, it’s great, even if you’re not religious.”
Younger service members are especially financially vulnerable this time of year, said Air Force Master Sgt. Jason Tober of La Plata, Md.
“I think the supervisors look out for them and try to make sure they’re taken care of during the holidays, which is important for the younger members,” he said.
“I think for most of us it’s just financial challenges. There have been folks who came to our command recently who had financial issues in the household or just those who had emergencies that they need help with.”
Younger service members were among those who volunteered to help.
Navy Petty Officer Cameron Yates of Columbia said he got his inspiration to help from his great-grandfather, a World War II veteran who served in the Navy.
“He was a giving man, pretty religious,” Yates said. “I thought this was a really good opportunity to support the community and give back.”
A community effort of this size requires a large force of dedicated organizers and volunteers, but for those who donated time and food, giving back is no chore. It’s just the right thing to do.
“This is how we were raised,” said organizer Pamela Dudley of Edgewater. “We were raised to know that you always give back. From day one, you give.”