Hundreds of Thanksgiving meals served at CityMinistries
on November 25, 2010
It’s the little things Joseph Riley remembers, like his mother’s homemade rocky road candy, when another holiday season takes the stage. The candy remains a distant taste of childhood, when she was still alive, and his family was one unit. That was over 20 years ago. Riley’s more recent holiday memories are composed of long lines out a shelter door, paper plates filled with turkey and trimmings, and finally Riley returning home, wherever home is that year, alone.
“I don’t pity myself,” Riley, 59, said amid a backdrop of people shuffling in and out of chairs at the CityTeam Ministries annual Thanksgiving Dinner on Wednesday. “Life is what it is, and I’m doing the best I can.”
The plate of turkey in front of Riley was steaming hot and decorated in cranberry sauce. The mashed potatoes rubbed against a heap of stuffing. He took in the smells billowing from his plate and closed his brown eyes for a moment. There were voices of children laughing, and old people sniffling. He opened his eyes, picked up his plastic fork, and starts with his favorite, potatoes and gravy.
Riley has spent the last four years eating Thanksgiving dinner at CityTeam Ministries, a homeless drop-in center that has been in downtown Oakland for the last hundred years. Open 365 days a year, the center provides daily hot meals, shelter, showers and clean clothing for the city’s homeless.
Volunteers from various churches, companies and families dished out more than a hundred Thanksgiving plates in between 1 and 3 p.m. on Wednesday. A youth church group from Pathfinders Club at Elmhurst Church in Oakland was responsible for spraying the cans of whipped cream on each of the individually sliced pumpkin and assorted berry pies. For one volunteer, Nathaniel Keller, 12, this is his third year volunteering at the CityTeam Ministries’ annual Thanksgiving Dinner. “It’s an honor to serve pie,” he said, “because I love pie. Every year when I come here, I have to eat some pie first. Then I serve.”
CityTeam Ministries Development Officer Janet Goodman said she depends on 30-some volunteers to help prepare, serve and attend to every man, woman and child that walks through the doors. “We serve them and treat them like our guests,” she said, “It’s part of our open hospitality mission.”
Riley said he is grateful for the service that CityTeam and other agencies provide on the holidays. Having previously volunteered at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s free dining room, he said he’d spend Thanksgiving there tomorrow helping to serve dinner.
With the help of an outreach coordinator and team, Goodman encourages persons who receive services from CityTeam Ministries to spread the word and come back to volunteer. “Rather than becoming a recipient of a hand-out,” she said “they become an agent of change.”
Riley said he lost his job, then his home, in Richmond a decade ago. He’s been living in Oakland since, he said, and has called seven different places, not including a couple of parks, home. “Sorry” and “laid-off” were frequent words Riley heard in and out of several restaurant and warehouse jobs. Although he now lives comfortably in a single-room apartment in downtown Oakland, he lost another full-time job back in March and has been struggling to make rent for the last couple of months. His landlord has cut him some slack, but he doesn’t know for how much longer.
Riley said he applies for a couple jobs every day and is staying hopeful. Seeing families together keeps him happy and positive. “It makes me want to tell them ‘hang on to what you got, make the best out of it,’” he said.
This holiday season, CityTeam plans to provide thousands of Oakland’s poor and homeless with meals, toys and warm winter clothing. To volunteer or help donate, visit their website.
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