December 1, 2005 – This Thanksgiving was one of the most memorable times in my life. I was finally able to share my experiences with my daughter instead of sharing the stories and pictures. My daughter and I left on the 20th of November and headed for Meridian, Mississippi. We arrived the next day at 7:30 am to the home of Cheri and Rick Barry and family who so graciously opened their hearts and home to us. We began to prepare for the Oprah party we were having because the show I was a part of was airing at 4pm that day. I also had to figure out how I was going to get 85 turkeys cooked because just before I left for the Coast, I called the church where we were supposed to cook, only to find out that they would not help us and the plans were changed. I called the old Dedeaux School and was told to talk to a man named Tony. Tony answered the phone and I introduced myself and stated why I was calling. I wanted to make sure that we were all set to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for the people in Hancock County.
To my horror and surprise, Tony told me we could not use the kitchen because he had 50 volunteers to feed. I said that I could understand, but I had 1000 residents who lost everything to feed. I inquired as to when he planned on cooking and he told me Thanksgiving morning. I told him that the timing was perfect because we were cooking on Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving. To make a very long story short and get to the point, Tony told me verbatim, "Look lady, I have 50 volunteers to feed, so you might as well get back on a plane and go home!" I was shocked and dismayed at the audacity of this man who only cared about himself and the 50 volunteers. He was so selfish that he didn't realize that I drive 15 hours to get to Mississippi. I told him that I had enough food to feed his 50 volunteers and all of the people we planned on feeding. I then asked him if he was part of Catholic Charities and he stated, "we are backed by them." How sad that Catholic Charities would chose to let this man represent them. I am sure that this is not the attitude and spirit of the Catholic Church because as a member, I have never come across this kind of selfishness. As it was, I was very disappointed in the lack of presence of the Catholic Church during the aftermath of the storm and now I finally get excited that my own faith was stepping up to the plate (no pun intended) only to have the excitement crushed by a man who should have gone home himself. There is no room for selfishness in the Gulf Coast. I spent the rest of the day making phone call after phone call trying to make sure that our plans to feed 1,000 people didn't get ruined by the uncaring and selfishness of one man.
The Meridian Fire Department to the rescue, literally!!!! After telling my plight to the Meridian Fire Department, they surprised us and offered to smoke and deep-fry all 85 turkeys for us. I drove down to the Diamondhead Supermarket in Diamondhead, Mississippi where all of the groceries were purchased and traveled three hours back with all of the turkeys so the Meridian Fire Department could cook them. I arrived back in Meridian at 2am only to meet the Firemen at 7am to start cooking. I didn't realize how much food feeds 1,000 people and I had to call for back up. In typical Pearlington fashion, members of their community came to my aid by bringing their pick-up trucks to the supermarket and helped us get the food to the box truck we were meeting up with. The Diamondhead Supermarket is the only open supermarket in Hancock County and it would have been approximately nine miles from where we were originally going to cook. After speaking with Joe Colalillo, the owner of the Flemington Shop Rite and gentleman who graciously donated the turkeys, we decided to put the money into the economy down south. Joe then helped me arrange for all of the Thanksgiving meal to be purchased down south. This saved us on renting a refrigerated truck and storage, which made the donations go further. Through the help of Brian Bernard, Jay Campbell, Polly Nell and Donnie Martin, all of Associated Grocers, we successfully started the Thanksgiving feast.
We carted 75 cases of food and other boxes of supplies to Father Anton's house in Kiln, Mississippi. Father Anton graciously opened his newly rebuilt home to us, so we could use it as a staging area in preparation for the holiday. Cecelia and Steve Howard helped us with these arrangements and also allowed us use of their home/FEMA trailer. A steel company donated the use of a huge grille that gets pulled by a truck. We set that up at Steve and Cecelia Howard's home and used that to heat the already prepared food. Back in Meridian, I met with the members of the fire department at 7am on Wednesday and we began cooking all of the turkeys. The Meridian Fire Department had never taken on a task like this and they passed with flying colors. They smoked 55 turkeys and deep fried 30 turkeys from 7am until 8:30pm the day before Thanksgiving. It was a non-stop cooking marathon. As each turkey was finished, we wrapped them in tinfoil and placed them in a cooler lined with a wool blanket. With the help of Sheila Hutcherson, Betsy Reeves, Janet Moore, my daughter Amanda, a young lady named Bailey and 12 members of the Meridian Fire Department, we successfully cooked all of the turkeys and brought them back down to the coast so we could continue on our mission.
We reached the Gulf Coast around 1:30 am on the morning of Thanksgiving. Most of the crew slept at Ms. Suzie's video store, the one we stayed at during our first trip down to the Gulf Coast. My daughter, bailey and I slept in a FEMA trailer down in Pearlington because Angel, her husband Donnie and her children Olivia and Donovan were excited to be able to do something for us. We finally put our heads down around 2:30am only to have to wake by 5:30am because the Dawsey family wanted to cook us breakfast before we left. We shared a breakfast of eggs, sausage and fried sweet potatoes and then met up with the rest of the crew by 7:30am to start the day. We set up the tents, tables and chairs, heated the enormous grille and began to set up a system of efficient and organized serving. Each dinner was placed in a clam shell/take-out box. The turkeys were still burning hot from the night before because of the insulation of the cooler and wool blanket. I thank whoever thought of that because it saved us from having to reheat the turkey. The only reheating should be the day after. We served hot turkey, sweet potatoes and green bean casseroles, dressing, cranberry sauce, gravy, a dinner roll and a piece of pie and a drink.
During the days before, I was introduced to a woman named Freda. Freda was trying to help us get use of her church's kitchen to no avail but Freda also has been doing God's work. I assured Freda that my help and the help of others wouldn’t be predicated on her church allowing us use of their kitchen. Freda works at the Hancock County North Central Elementary School. She shared her plight that the children and families were freezing at night because some of the people are still living in tents on the ground and others are in FEMA trailers but they cannot afford the propane, so they spare the heat and use the propane only for cooking. How is this still happening three months after the storm? Where is the local, state and federal government making sure that all basic necessities are taken care of? I am sure all of the politicians are warm and cozy at night. Through help of friends, we brought Freda 575 blankets and solved the problem of people freezing at night. We also brought her boxes upon boxes of food because they put food in the children's backpacks to ensure they have food, especially over the weekend. The children come to the school hungry. Are we living in America? I am reaching out to you, the FOXFan base and asking you to get involved in anyway you can. If you can get down there and help, please do so. If you can spare some extra change, please send it to the Key Chapter as stated in previous articles. If you can donate goods, be generous. These people do not want a hand out, they want a hand up so they can continue rebuilding and move on with their lives.
We hand delivered over 600 meals throughout the Silver Creek area and other areas in Kiln and Pearlington. We also fed people through the Waveland Market, Dolly's (the gas station where the Bell South phones were set up) and the Broke Spoke, a pub behind Dolly's. I didn't realize how impoverished the Silver Creek area of Kiln was until you go back into the community and see it first hand. We met people with varying situations. Steve was a Vietnam Vet and former POW who graciously accepted not only Thanksgiving dinner, but also a request to have his picture taken with us. We spoke with Steve for a short time and listened to his story and how tired he was of the government. Steve had his do-rag on his head and a Fender guitar strapped to his back. When I looked at his guitar, I noticed that all of the strings were broken. I have put Steve on our Christmas wish list for a new guitar; only he doesn't know it yet. We came across so many wonderful people. If we heard once, we heard it hundreds of times, "Thank you for caring. If it wasn't for the Red Cross, we would have nothing."
Even though we were not there as representatives of the Red Cross, we did wear our shirts so people would be less apprehensive to take from us. Haven, a four-year-old boy who sang for us as a gift for bringing them food, serenaded us. Haven said, "let me clear my throat," then he rubbed his eyes and cleared his throat again and preceded to sing to us, "You are so Beautiful." It took every ounce of our energy not to cry. There were so many people to have crossed our paths on that Thankful Day. People were asking us to join them or dinner as we were bringing them food. I cannot emphasize how gracious the people I have come across are. I am thankful that God chose me to fulfill this work. My daughter will never be the same again. She has always been compassionate. She demonstrated that as a five year old when she ran to assist a person with an ambulatory condition and I was telling her not to run. She told me that she had to do something and when I looked down the hall, she was opening a door and holding it for the person using the crutches. It was then that I realized the power of my own actions. It is no doubt that helping people on Thanksgiving Day fulfilled my daughter. Amanda had never spent Thanksgiving with her father and this year she wanted to. Instead, Amanda sacrificed her own desires to help make a difference in other human beings lives. She succeeded and doesn't regret her decision.
We finished up our day around 9pm on Thanksgiving Day. The crew at Steve and Cecelia's house cleaned everything up and met us at Ms. Suzie's video store where we caravanned back to Meridian. We reached home around midnight and sat for the first time in almost 24 hours after making sure that the grille was returned. We recounted our day and shared it with the people back in Meridian. To see the pride on their faces and the genuine respect for what we had just accomplished topped the day off. There is nothing more gratifying than serving people in need. I do believe my career has just changed. It is extremely hard for me to focus on my current career because the need is so great and my heart wants to do so much more.
I would like to thank the following people for their dedication and selflessness during the Thanksgiving holiday. I hope I have not forgotten anyone and this is not in any order:
• Cheri & Rick Barry
• Jennifer, Merritt, Jay and Catherine Barry
• Sheila Hutcherson
• Betsy Reeves
• Abbey & Tom Dean
• Cecelia Hollis and her son Trey
• Janet Moore
• Bailey, a new volunteer
• Cecelia and Steve Howard, Kiln, Mississippi
• Bill - neighbor from across the street at Steve & Cecelia's
• Angel & Donnie Dawsey & their children Olivia and Donovan, Pearlington, Mississippi
• Friends of the Dawsey's — Wendy & her husband, Pearlington, Mississippi
• Anna & Dalton Busby, neighbors of Steve & Cecelia
• The Meridian Fire Department
• Freda and her husband who guided us through Silver Creek
We are now preparing for the Christmas holidays. We are taking a multi-leveled approach to Christmas. We are adopting families, collecting gift cards, adopting a school and granting Christmas wishes for as many people as we can. With the backing of the Flemington Department Store, the Hunterdon Medical Center, the Hunterdon Health & Wellness Center, the Flemington and its surrounding communities, along with people in New York, Georgia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Mississippi, we will continue on our mission to make a difference in the lives of the people down in the Gulf Coast. We have adopted the school at Stennis Airport Road in Kiln, Mississippi. They lost all of their gym, music and art equipment. Anyone interested in getting involved donating any of this type of equipment, please let me know. I will make the arrangements to get it to the school. We are also adopting all of the children in Hancock County. If you are interested in sending a gift for a child in the age range of newborn to 17 years old, please send it to the Flemington Department Store located at 151 State Road 31, Flemington, NJ 08822. You can also send money and we will purchase the gift on your behalf. Christmas is a time of giving and sharing the blessing bestowed upon us with others who are less fortunate. In this very special time under the circumstances, I ask for your help in making Christmas special for the people of Hancock County, Mississippi.
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