The area’s Thanksgiving version of fishes and loaves is already in the preparation stages, but everyone’s help is needed to make the annual miracle happen.
It’s the season for Shared Blessings’ Thanksgiving meal, which last year, between Thanksgiving and the Saturday following, fed a full dinner to just shy of 4,000 food-impoverished, shut-in or otherwise lonely people.
This year, the transitional shelter for the homeless (located at 518 Grove St. in Bonne Terre) is on track to assemble and deliver 5,000 meals, said Shared Blessings Executive Director Shelly Bess.
It takes every bit of the loaves-and-fishes miracle of community support to make those meals happen, she said, but she and her army of volunteers are working hard to make “Happy Thanksgiving” inclusive to everyone.
“It is phenomenal how much this community will do when you ask. Bismarck has announced they won’t be having their Thanksgiving dinner and there were four or five areas we didn’t reach because we didn’t have the manpower,” she said. “This year we’re partnering with a few other groups that are coming and I believe they will reach further in the county than they have in the past. The calls coming in requesting meals seem to be more than in previous years.
“So I just think it’s going to be huge … Way more than it was intended to be.”
The tradition started seven years ago, Bess said, shortly after North County announced a high proportion of their students experienced weekend hunger. At the time, the district announced it would be sending those students home with as much extra food as possible in backpacks to tide them over until school meals on Monday.
“That’s what started this whole thing, was that announcement,” Bess remembered. “Our board said, ‘We always have food at Shared Blessings.’ So we got on the radio with Mark (Toti, radio personality at J98) and said, all we have is some food and a building. We don’t have a lot of tables and chairs, so you might have to stand or take turns sitting, but we can feed you, just come to Grove Street.’”
Bess said the support from the community was “tremendous.” People dropped off food, volunteers served it up at the shelter. It was a good turnout of people, but the amount of food collected far exceeded the number of dinner guests who came that day.
“We had so much food that we didn’t have enough people to feed,” Bess said. “One of the volunteers asked me, ‘These other people who are hungry … do you know where they are?’ And I said, I do.
“So they started making a caravan of cars outside the building, a long serving line inside the building, and they started making those to-go plates, we went out in the community and that first year, we fed 500 people.”
But 500 is just a number in the feeding of the multitudes of St. Francois and even surrounding counties.
So is 100 hams (which they need). So are 5,000 to-go boxes for dessert, 5,000 dinner boxes, 5,000 salad boxes and 5,000 bottles of water (all of which, they also need). So is 100-150 volunteers of all ages and backgrounds who are needed daily, Thursday through Saturday, to scoop, slice, and assemble the meals, run them to all points in the county and beyond, and keep the momentum going on this tidal wave of local giving.
To donate time from Thursday to Saturday, Bess said, anyone can just show up, or they can call the shelter at 573-358-2998 for more information. They can also check out Shared Blessings on Facebook for updates on what’s needed.
“Salad, desserts, every aspect of a traditional Thanksgiving meal,” she said. “They get a full meal plate, dessert plate, salad plate, a little container of cranberry sauce, a roll, and a bottle of water. We try to have that in every meal that leaves here. And so far, we’ve been able to make it happen.”
To donate food from Thursday to Saturday, anyone can just make extra of whatever they’re cooking for their own Thanksgiving dinner and it will be gratefully accepted, Bess said.
“We keep food refrigerated, and we warm it up on propane grills before assembling it and taking it out,” she said. “If we need help with refrigeration, the Masonic hall and the Methodist Church have helped out in the past.”
She said the propane grills will be lit on Wednesday, and stay burning through Saturday when the last roll leaves the building.”
How it all leaves the building might be tricky.
Bess said the big hurdle this year is to-go containers.
“I believe the food will come. We already have individuals dropping off paper supplies for in-house, but most of these meals will leave Shared Blessings and go out in the community,” she said. “We need those meal and dessert containers, and they’re expensive. We just have to have them donated.”
To donate monetarily to the cause, checks can be sent to Shared Blessings, P.O. Box 456, Bonne Terre, MO, 63628. To donate paper products, visit the shelter at 518 Grove St., Bonne Terre, or call 573-358-2998. To donate food or volunteer, anyone can call ahead or they can just show up.
“You wanna hear the cool part of it?” Bess asked. “We’ve never asked anybody to specifically bring anything or to specifically come at certain times over those three days.
“So far, with this being our seventh year, we haven’t wasted any food, and we’ve always had volunteers say they feel like they spent their time well, that their contribution was valid, and of great value. We’ve had tasks for everyone, young and old. Everyone can play a part in making it happen.”
Bess said additionally, anyone can request a meal.
“Starting Thanksgiving morning, we’ll be serving at Shared Blessings, we’ll have food ready on a hot buffet beginning at 11 a.m. Thursday, lasting until 6 or 7 p.m., and then Friday and Saturday will be the same thing,” she said. “People are welcome to come here and eat, they don’t have to be in need to eat, you just have to show up. We’ll feed you here, you can even take food when you leave. We’re delivering as manpower is available.”
Bess said, while the goal is to make sure no one goes hungry Thanksgiving weekend, it’s not just the bodies of people being fed — it’s also their souls.
“The stories are getting sadder every year. Every year, the volunteers are amazed by what they see,” Bess said. “It’s the most miraculous work I’ve ever seen. It will humble you to your knees, to see the people so appreciative for food.”
Sarah Haas is the assistant editor for the Daily Journal. She can be reached at 573-518-3617 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.