A Thanksgiving ago, many of us were fretting over delays at the airport, our holiday season shopping lists, even things like whether to get another Botox injection or a new set of wheels.
Now we worry about keeping gas in the car. Or just keeping the car.
This Thanksgiving, a slumping economy is making many Americans more fearful than thankful.
And yet, as grim as these days are, millions of Americans are still preparing to turn a meal into a celebration — to find joy in the midst of growing hardship.
You could see glimmers of it everywhere — from the suburbs north of Los Angeles, where families who once lived in new homes lined up for free food, to Denver, where dozens down on their luck answered an Internet ad for Thanksgiving dinner, to a church on Wall Street, where a clergyman repeatedly struggled to answer the question of the moment: Will the hard times ever end?
Thanks to Craigslist
At turkey time last year, Monique White was unemployed, living in a cramped motel room and pining for the Thanksgivings of her childhood, when dozens of people would gather for a holiday feast.
Today a receptionist at a dentist’s office, she has a townhouse in Littleton, Colo. And, thanks to an Internet posting, a list of Thanksgiving dinner guests — strangers all — who will help her eat nine turkeys, four hams, 16 boxes of stuffing and a dozen or so pies.
How did this happen?
White, 36, was feeling a bit lonesome a week ago; her two sons were planning to spend the holiday with their father. And though her longtime partner, Doug White, would be there for her on Thanksgiving, she longed to be surrounded by many more people.
So she posted invitations on Craigslist, the Internet classifieds site. In part, one read:
“Maybe you are someone who is new in town and doesn’t have anywhere to go. Maybe you are a small family that wouldn’t be able to afford Thanksgiving dinner otherwise. Maybe you are just looking to change up your normal Thanksgiving tradition. ... We have room at our table this year.”
She figured four folks, maybe five would answer. But then the replies poured in: People laid off from work. People with no family. People ashamed to bring their children to a Thanksgiving dinner at a soup kitchen.
“I thought: There’s was no way I can judge who is worthy of sitting at my table. I have to invite them all,” White says.
In all, 32 people are expected for dinner.
When White’s boss heard what she was doing, he offered to pay for the food. Then a local hotel offered to provide tables and chairs. Then a professional magician said he would like to perform for the kids.
Certainly a far cry from Thanksgiving 2007, White says. “Last year it was just us two. It was horrible.”
Doug White has been busy baking turkeys, putting one in the oven as soon as another comes out.
“People need to stop being so worried about me, me, me, my bills, my life,” he says. “You stop worrying, and look what happens?”
— By Kristen Wyatt
An inspiring wish
Before dying of leukemia last week, 11-year-old Brenden Foster had put together his very own “Bucket List.” Item No. 1 on the boy’s things-to-do-before-I-die list?
Feed the homeless.
Brenden, as it turned out, was too sick to handle that one on his own. Diagnosed with blood cancer in August 2005, he suffered a relapse last December. By this summer, doctors told the fifth-grader he hadn’t long to live.
Then, earlier this month, KOMO-TV in Seattle aired a report about the boy’s wish list. Within days the word had spread all the way down the Pacific Coast, and the response was startling.
In Los Angeles, the Union Rescue Mission, a nonprofit shelter, served 2,500 meals this month to the homeless in Brenden’s honor. When it distributed sack lunches to the needy, two words were written on the front of each pouch: “Love Brenden.”
In Seattle, near the suburb of Bothell, where the slight, curly-haired boy lived, volunteers prepared hundreds of sandwiches to give away — ham and cheese, Brenden’s favorite, and peanut butter and jelly. (The boy wanted to make sure vegetarian homeless people had something to eat.)
By Thanksgiving, a Seattle campaign collected more than 60,000 pounds of donated food to be distributed among the state’s food banks for the holiday. “I don’t have much myself,” read one note, attached to a donation, “but your wish touched me and I’m going to do what I can.”
Says Camille Wells, a spokeswoman with the nonprofit Food Lifeline: “I can’t say we would have gotten the same response from people if it wasn’t for his request.”
Brenden died Friday at home. He told his family he wasn’t afraid of death, just sad that he didn’t have more time on Earth to do more, says Patricia McMorrow, his grandmother. The boy’s other wishes: To save honeybees and clean up Seattle’s Puget Sound.
— By Phuong Le
View from a food bank
Turn down nearly any street in Lancaster, Calif., a former military town that entered the 21st century as one of the nation’s fastest-growing suburbs, and behold: Almost-new houses with boarded-up windows, for-sale signs in the yards, and moving trucks in the driveways.
Stop at the Grace Resource Center, a couple of miles from a neighborhood called Prairie Rose, and see this: families, some of whom used to live in these houses, waiting in line for free food.
Among them this week was Randy McClure, who lost his job as a school custodian a year ago and has yet to find another. He has a wife, two kids and a home of 14 years that is in foreclosure. In better times, he used to volunteer at Grace Resource.
“I helped people who needed help — like we need help now,” McClure, 48, says with a chuckle.
He gestures to the scores of people waiting patiently in line with him Tuesday for their food allotment. It will be more than enough to get them through the holidays, but some will return on Thursday for a Thanksgiving dinner.
Steve Baker, an amiable man of 56 with the girth of a small bear and a graying goatee, knows McClure, as he does many of those lined up for food. Some went to his high school, 40 years ago.
“This year more than ever it’s emotionally draining because we’re seeing more middle-class folks coming in than ever before,” says Baker, who has run Grace Resource since its opening in 1991. “They’re broke. They’re embarrassed. Some of them are mad.”
He saw this cactus-and-sagebrush-studded town in the Mojave Desert, 70 miles north of Los Angeles, fill up with tile-roofed houses with swimming pools and four-car garages. He watched the population mushroom from 10,000 to 145,000.
He is now too invested in Lancaster emotionally to be anywhere but this food bank on Thanksgiving Day, particularly since a fundraiser earlier this year that was expected to bring in $25,000 cleared just $14,000.
“A lot of very generous people have been very honest with us and are saying, ‘You know, we just don’t have it to give this year.’ And we understand that,” he says.
One donor, who had no money to give, knitted a hundred winter caps instead. Others who turned up for food ended up helping distribute it, embarrassed, perhaps, that they had nothing to give.
To them, Baker had a simple message: “When things turn around, I know you’ll be helping us again.”
— By John Rogers
From big bird to little bird
Here’s how Michael Savu, a 48-year-old former data analyst for an American automaker, generally celebrates Thanksgiving:
He drives out to a turkey farm, selects a big, $40 bird. He hauls it home to the Detroit suburb of Novi, ices it. When Turkey Day arrives, he fries his 16-pounder in the backyard of his house, while his wife, Julie, prepares her signature stuffing, cranberry sauce and pies.
There’s typically so much bounty that Savu provides not only for his two daughters but for his two brothers-in-law, who always drive up from Dearborn, Mich., to share a meal and catch the Detroit Lions Thanksgiving Day football game on television.
This is no typical holiday, though.
After 29 years working for one of Detroit’s Big Three, Savu lost his $90,000-a-year job in September. Money is suddenly tight.
“Every Thanksgiving we paid for everything,” Savu says. This year, “we are still going to have them over. The difference is they are bringing the turkey and most of the other stuff.”
He adds: “There definitely will be less food.”
Savu is receiving severance pay. But that will run out in about a year. He is not sure he will be able to find an equivalent-paying job, and he is worrying about his mortgage and his credit card debt.
“I’m paranoid about saving every cent. I’m spending almost nothing on Christmas, almost zero,” he says. “I have never had to really worry about money in my entire life.”
— By Corey Williams