Tanya Carroll’s 21-month-old grandson, Dallas Baker, was diagnosed with lead poisoning as a baby, a condition she says left him less than interested in eating for several worrisome weeks.
But the cheerful toddler’s appetite didn’t seem to be much of a problem Wednesday.
Dallas, of East Baltimore, laid waste to a plateful of turkey, some cranberry sauce and a handful of tangerine slices as he basked in the attention of family members and friends at the 63rd annual Thanksgiving Dinner and Resource Fair at the Baltimore Convention Center.
The group was among the more than 3,000 people who came on a chilly afternoon to attend the event, a free dinner that Goodwill of the Chesapeake Inc. has sponsored in downtown Baltimore every year since 1955.
About 300 volunteers fanned out through the sprawling exhibition hall to serve hot food, drinks and desserts to guests, many of whom are homeless, struggling financially or experiencing some other form of unusual need.
Each attendee came with a free ticket distributed by a shelter, a church, a medical provider or another organization that works with Goodwill.
Goodwill’s marketing director, Jonathan Balog, clad in an orange volunteer’s T-shirt, said he was working his 17th annual dinner. He said the event is an extension of what the nonprofit does year-round.
“We partner with different organizations that work with the homeless, with people who have disabilities or special needs,” Balog said. “And this time of year, we’re privileged to be able to provide this dinner to people who are basically less fortunate in our community.”
Martin’s Catering provided the food through its vendors, as it has done for years. The Bunyanesque quantities included 156 whole turkeys, 87 gallons of milk, 60 pounds of pork shoulders, 17 cases of dinner rolls, 20 cases of sauerkraut, 12 cases of soda and 200 cut cakes (100 red velvet, 100 assorted).
“We don’t know how we’d pull this off without Martin’s,” Balog said. “They are consistently amazing.”
The Convention Center donated the space, as it has done since the early 1980s, when then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer first arranged for the facility to house the event.
Dallas’ table included his mother, Jasmine Williams, a family friend, Vioree Hill, and Carroll.
A handful of volunteers — all women and girls — stopped to pose for pictures with the charming toddler.
“God is so good; Dallas is functioning so well, and look at that million-dollar smile,” his grandmother said.
Family members said they had still more to be thankful for Wednesday.
The day included a resources fair, in which representatives from an array of social-service organizations offered information on free community resources.
More than three dozen booths informed guests about programs on everything from job training and financial planning to mental health, food provision and legal aid programs.
Chevonne Francois, a job-readiness counselor at Paul’s Place, a community outreach center for low-income families in Southwest Baltimore, said about 300 people stopped by the organization’s booth to learn about its Monday night men’s group, its free-shower and free-laundry programs, and its programs on housing, expungement and vital-statistics research.
Carroll and Williams said they stopped by the Maryland Food Bank’s Foodworks booth to learn more about healthful diets for Dallas. And the lines were long for the CASH Campaign of Maryland, a nonprofit that promotes economic advancement.
Balog said his 17 years working the event make him a virtual novice; volunteers from across the Baltimore area have been coming for decades.
Ron Dapkunas of Oella said he began serving as part of an outreach effort through his law firm about 30 years ago, and though the firm has moved on to other initiatives, he’s still at it.
“It’s my favorite day of the year,” he said. “The way I see it, if someone’s out of work, we’re all out of work. If someone’s homeless, we’re all homeless. I try to treat people here the way I would want to be treated if I were in that kind of situation.”
Dapkunas said he always comes early so he can claim a space doling out sauerkraut — a Thanksgiving food he says guests either love or hate, and thus an excellent stimulus for friendly conversation.
Mark Yingling certainly had no problem with the pickled stuff. The 51-year-old from Brooklyn piled heaps of it atop his turkey and gravy, thanked Dapkunas and headed for a table with his friend, Charles McManus, 76, also of Brooklyn.
“Gravy, mashed potatoes, sauerkraut all mixed up — it’s all good,” said Yingling, who said he has been coming to the dinner with McManus for about five years. “I’m grateful every time I get up in the morning and I’m still here. But I’m especially thankful for all these nice people who take the time to do all this for us.”
Sydney Cannon of Columbia was one of those nice people. A senior at Towson University, the 23-year-old was serving at the dinner for the first time through CityFam, an organization that plans social events around community-service projects.
Cannon had just poured a guest some coffee, then asked another he needed anything.
The guest asked why she was being so nice to him.
That, Cannon said, really brought home why such an event was so important.
“It’s so touching to see how the smallest gesture can mean so much to others,” she said. “I’m definitely coming back next year.”