Hundreds celebrate at Martinsburg church

November 29, 2002|by RICHARD BELISLE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - "The fare is cheap and all can go

The rich and poor are there

No second class aboard this train

No difference in the fare. ..."

Helen Harris said those lines - from "Gospel Train," an old time Gospel song - best describe the meaning of the free Thanksgiving dinner available to anyone who walked into St. Joseph's Parish School on Thursday.

"It's the giving of thanks and the giving of one's self to help our brothers and sisters, that's what this all means," said Harris, who with her husband, Leonard, have been the catalysts behind the dinners since the first one was served last year.


In 2001, about 400 people showed up for the dinner, which runs from noon to 3:30 p.m. More than 500 attended Thursday.

It takes about 85 volunteers to prepare and serve the 35 turkeys and all the trimmings, Helen Harris said. Money to buy the food comes from donations and from St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, she said.

"It's become an annual ministry for the parish," she said. "This is not just for poor people. Anyone can come in. We have families here."

The dinner is a long-time dream of her husband, she said.

"We always opened our home to anyone who wanted to come in on Thanksgiving," Leonard Harris said.

"I was feeling guilty for a long time about the meaning of Thanksgiving," he said. "I always thought it should be shared with people who have no one to be with so I told my wife that we should start having a community dinner. Father John Debacle Jr., the church pastor, embraced the idea."

Harris said he plans to keep the dinners going every year.

"We're going to do it until we can't do it any longer," he said.

At one point, Leonard Harris came into the outside hall carrying Lady, a small gray poodle.

"I'm baby-sitting so her owners can eat," he said.

Chris Collins, 33, the mother of two St. Joseph students, was among the volunteers. "Without this, a lot of people wouldn't have a place to have a Thanksgiving dinner," she said.

Even her children were helping, serving food and cleaning up the tables for the next diners.

Wil Dorman, 10, was moving deftly among the tables offering drinks. He seemed to be proud of his efforts on behalf of others.

"I help the people get things," he said.

One of the benefactors of the volunteers' efforts was Patricia Gramling. She lives in the nearby Senior Towers Apartments at 200 E. Stephens St.

"This is my first year here. I didn't know about it last year," she said.

"This is a good place for people with no place to go, people like me who have no family here," she said.

Gramling said residents at Senior Towers had their Thanksgiving at the home Tuesday. Thursday's dinner made her holiday complete and traditional.

After all, she said, who wants to celebrate Thanksgiving without the turkey and all the trimmings?

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