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Thanksgiving dinner with the homeless

This will be the 6th year where I deliver Thanksgiving dinner to Chicago’s homeless. I think it’s important that I share this story with you.

I remember thinking back in 2010 about the leftovers that often go to waste after a big holiday meal. You always say you’re going to make the most amazing sandwiches or casseroles on Friday and Saturday but then you realize that what you want most is something other than turkey. So it sits and while you’re sure to eat some of it, much will go to waste.

That’s just part of the inspiration that went into a very basic idea. How can I share my good fortune with people who have none, the people who sit outside shivering or are drenched in rain-soaked dirty clothes – the people who know it’s Thanksgiving but don’t have anything for which to be thankful.

scott-kleinberg-thanksgivingI don’t have a car and it’s actually easier to walk than take a cab or bus. I can usually carry 6 or 7 bags that contains everything that makes up a traditional thanksgiving meal: Turkey, sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping, stuffing with apples and cranberries, cranberry sauce (from a can, of course), buttered corn, a crescent roll and a mini pumpkin pie. Each bag contains plastic silverware, napkins and a bottle of water.

I remember two years ago, I brought a dinner to a woman who always sat across the street from the Tribune Tower. She was older and had a Thanksgiving-themed sign begging people to just read it before judging her. I can’t tell you how many people didn’t listen to her, but I did. I read her sign.

I’ll never forget it.

“I used to be just like you, enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with my family. And then things changed – things always change. And here I am. I would never judge you. Please don’t judge me. Help if you can. Thank you, and have a blessed Thanksgiving and holiday season.”

When it wasn’t Thanksgiving, she was always pleasant. Sometimes, she cried. She often said she was cold and just wanted to be warm. I would offer to buy her coffee, and if she accepted she would ask for hot chocolate instead. I would always oblige. A few times, I gave her a $5 bill and she couldn’t stop saying “bless you, sir. Bless you.” That drove home the point that for less than the cost of a venti mocha at Starbucks you can make someone’s day or even their week.

When I brought her dinner that year, I did the same thing I do for everyone else. I explain what they are getting and why I do it. I then say that if they want someone to talk to that I’m happy to listen. I’m not family, but I can be someone’s family even if it’s for a few minutes. Almost everyone accepts the food, but not everyone wants to talk. This woman wasn’t as talkative as usual when I stopped with her meal, but she cried. She cried louder than usual. She explained that her husband died and she couldn’t afford her home and she ended up the street. No crime. No mental illness. Simply someone who could no longer make ends meet when she lost her support system. And while so many people walked by with that look of disgust, it took me just a few seconds to find this out.

And as if it couldn’t get worse, as I was kneeling down outside the Walgreen’s talking to her as she ate, three tourists were kneeling right next to her to take a photo with Tribune Tower in the background. It was literally as if she didn’t exist.

But she said something that stuck with me. She said “This is usually just Thursday. Today, you made it feel like Thanksgiving, and it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that.” These are the kinds of words you keep with you and remember whenever you complain about little things going wrong. Sure, it’s easy to say that it can always be worse but sometimes seeing the people going through worse helps provide some much-needed perspective.

I saw her in the months after that. She smiled. I’d get her a hot chocolate or give her $1 or $5 depending on what I had on me. And then I stopped seeing her. And I haven’t seen her since. I know someone reading this will tell me that I was scammed, but I refuse to believe it. Maybe she was able to stay with other family members. Maybe she got sick. Maybe she just went to another part of the city. Anyway, I hope she’s ok. I think of her a lot when I walk around with my bags.

I met others like her. And over the past 6 years, the weather has varied greatly. A few years, it was zero or below zero. One year, it was like a monsoon. The other years it was just cold and clear. It takes longer to find people during the extreme weather years, and that always gives me hope that they are inside at a shelter somewhere enjoying dinner. This year there’s supposed to be a lot of rain. But I’ll be out there again. My wife cooks and we pack up the food and then I head out right around dark.

People often ask me how they can help. What I do is far from organized, so I think the best way to help is for you to create something similar in your neighborhood or city. I am of course aware of the dangers of walking the streets alone and the kinds of people it’s possible to run into, so I certainly recommend you take someone along. But the way I think about it is like this: If I can give 7 people who have nothing to look forward to a Thanksgiving dinner, and 2 other people do the same thing at the same time, then 21 people just ate Thanksgiving dinner. And if 5 other people do it, then 42 people just had Thanksgiving dinner. And if I get 5 people to do it this year and then those 5 people get 5 more people next year, well, you see where I’m going. I’m quite happy when I can help 7 people, but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I think about helping more because I always do.

I’ll close with this. Even if you can’t take leftover Thanksgiving dinner into your community and feed random people, please don’t forget those people on all the other days of the year. Sure, there are less-than-wholesome people out there who scam and trick, but the majority of the people you see just want a chance and really aren’t all that different from you and me. If you don’t feel comfortable giving money, which I often don’t, I like to ask them if they need anything.

A cup of coffee and a doughnut goes a long, long way.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I’m certainly thankful for my readers and I hope you get to spend this holiday with your family and friends.

About Scott Kleinberg

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