The Chicago Tribune recently ran an article, "Drama at the holiday table: It's not about the food," that made the rounds to newspapers all across the U.S. in anticipation of Thanksgiving, the official kick-off holiday of the season. The story explores the source of drama behind so many meals as families gather together to break bread. For all those whose resentments may boil over into fights at the dinner table this Thanksgiving, perhaps they should focus on being thankful instead of griping. Focusing on the less fortunate can really put things into perspective.
I had the opportunity and privilege to hang out with some folks who reminded me of how much I had to be thankful for - about 315 of them to be exact. On Monday, November 24, the Hall-Mercer Community Behavior Health Center of Pennsylvania Hospital (PAH) hosted its 20th Annual Thanksgiving Luncheon. The free meal is open to members of the surrounding community, the homeless, and members of the community the Center serves: outpatients living with mental illness or developmental disabilities, their family and friends.
The meal, served at noon, is truly a community affair, both internally and externally. Hall-Mercer and McGoldrick Leasing, a vendor of the Center)provided the funding for the turkeys served. The PAH Department of Food and Nutrition Services cooks and carves the turkeys and provides all the traditional tasty side dishes: mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, stuffing, cranberry sauce (the real stuff too - not the congealed gunk in a can), salad and rolls. The PAH Women's Auxiliary provided funding for desserts, 30 pumpkin, pecan and apple pies, and beverages.
Hall-Mercer and PAH staff - from administrative assistants to top administrators - served guests and assisted in setting up and cleaning up at the Thanksgiving Luncheon.
Folks tend to come early for this anticipated meal - often hours in advance. "We get so many people we have to do multiple seatings," said Patty Inacker, LCSW, MBA, director of Operations who has been working at Hall-Mercer for the past 23 years. "Once we know everyone has been served, we invite back in all who are waiting in the hall and lobby. Then we just keep serving until all the food is gone. It's clear that for many of our guests this is the only Thanksgiving, perhaps any holiday meal, they will have."
Each seating serves 70. The Center had four separate seatings and also has a separate seating of 35 for their Therapeutic Day Program and Learning Center clients (already at the Center for the day) who eat together.
Guests were greeted by a very upbeat and warm, Earl Lounsberry, BCRN, one of the Center's nurses who has been with Hall-Mercer for nine years. Earl was standing before a large bulletin board in the hall created by Deb Blastic, one of the Center's case managers,and festively decorated for Thanksgiving. As guests waited in line to be seated, Earl asked them, "Would you please tell us what Hall-Mercer means to you?" All were more than happy to take a few moments to write their thoughts of gratitude on sticky notes including:
- Hall-Mercer is a safe place
- Relationships - Helping the Community
- Hall-Mercer has been wonderful to me and my doctors are the best. They are helping me heal.
- Hall-Mercer is helping me in my life
- Gives me much needed support in my life
- Communication - Stability
- Hall-Mercer helps me cope with my illness
Guests of the luncheon were of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. Family members came together, even a few full families with small children. Some folks came by themselves, but none were alone, as they were greeted warmly by staff who obviously cared for and knew them well. Staff buzzed around, keeping things in order and clean, making sure everyone had access to everything and guests were settled in to eat comfortably.
Setting an excellent example of giving back and helping those less fortunate was Sheehan Joseph, a student therapist from Temple currently interning at the Center who came to help with her eight-year-old son Becker and six-year-old daughter Honor. Honor deftly staffed the beverage table while Sheehan and Becker served desserts to guests and generally helped out where ever they were needed.
At one point I joined Inacker as she was paying particular attention to one sweet, smiling woman, making sure she had everything, and helping her balance several plates wrapped in foil. "She's one of our homeless clients,” said Inacker. “This will definitely be her only Thanksgiving and probably the first hot meal she's had in weeks. It's so important that we do this for her and others to give them a sense of hope and knowing that someone cares."
As things were starting to wrap up Donna Campo, MS, coordinator of Homeless Services at the Center and resident Pie Queen responsible for the ordering and distribution of the meal's desserts, was carefully putting together a plate to go. "One of my clients who is in school and unable to make it to the luncheon asked me to make him a plate. He's so grateful for the meal."
The gentleman of whom Campo speaks, is 50 years old, living with mental health and developmental issues and currently attends basic education classes to improve his math and reading skills. "He came to us 25 years ago through our outreach program for the homeless," said Campo who has been with Hall-Mercer for 26 years. "We see him here now once a month. He now lives independently in a studio apartment and is working toward getting his own one bedroom apartment."
"This is what Hall-Mercer is all about," said Campo. "The goal is to keep people connected to the treatment they need and to encourage them to get plugged into the community. We help people put together their lives and try to teach them how to cope with their issues so they can not only keep their lives together, but continue to improve their quality of life."