Give Thanks, Give Turkeys

A dozen volunteers hustled back and forth with groceries in their arms. Empty boxes filled the driveway and front yard of the small house cradled between the 105 and the 110 interchange. Taking care not to disturb their hosts’ carefully tended native plants, children and adults filled 125 boxes with groceries, to be delivered to hungry neighbors.

This scene has been replayed every month for fourteen years. On the last Sunday of the month, when many families in the neighborhood have empty pantries and are waiting for another pay day, the volunteers of “One on One Outreach” do their part to fill a need. The idea was the brainchild of the man at whose house we worked, who realized that his neighbors were going hungry.

I went this month with my husband, our seven-year-old son and fifteen-year-old niece. Alongside first-timers and veterans, we used our hands, arms, backs, legs and hearts. Like ants building a hill, we busied ourselves carrying this month’s assorted food and sundries, collected, sorted and stored each month by our host. Potatoes, plums and peaches. Bologna, granola bars and pistachios. Laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid and baby powder.

I wondered how my seven-year-old would fare. It’s physical work –  two hours of lifting, bending, stuffing, organizing and checking that every box is complete. He became a boy on a mission. He carried gallons of juice down the long aisle of boxes, he saw to it that every box got a sack of potatoes, he ensured the plums would not be bruised. He grew three inches with the importance of his work.

We loaded the heavy boxes onto two pickup trucks, one suffering from time and use, the other shiny and sturdy. They cruised two short blocks, flimsy bungee cords miraculously holding boxes stacked six high. We followed on foot in the middle of the street (part of the fun for a seven year old).

We stopped at the first apartment building. One by one we carried boxes to appreciative families, until they were quickly gone.

My son and my niece, who have never known an empty pantry, or a refrigerator that couldn’t be restocked, glimpsed into the apartments and lives of people not born with that same gift. Overhearing his dad describing to me how many people were crammed into one particular apartment, our son said softly, hopefully, “But they have a happy life.” Noticing a courtyard of grass and cement, he said, “They have a lot of room to play outside.”

I wondered how to frame my response. Like all of us, he was trying to make sense of what he saw, of the disparity between his circumstances and those of the kids in front of him. I didn’t want him to feel pity, but empowerment and action. And while it’s true that anyone can be happy or sad — rich or poor — it’s a lot easier to be happy when your tummy is full. I thought of the tantrum my son threw two nights earlier, when he didn’t like what I’d made for dinner. I let his observation stand. “That’s true,” I said, “there’s lots of room to play.”

The next night would be Halloween, but in contrast to our neighborhood, there were few decorations. Our host and one of his neighbors are the only ones who hand out candy, he told me, and the kids just go back and forth between the two houses until they run out. He showed me boxes of treats stacked by his front door, ready for trick-or-treaters. “I usually hand out about a thousand,” he said.

We had promised our son one more trip to buy Halloween decorations, so after we finished, we headed back to West L.A to do that. We dropped twenty bucks on things that, despite my best intentions, will likely be thrown away or lost before next year – cotton spider webs, plastic bones, a kitty cat tail.

On Halloween, we accepted a friend’s invitation to join her in Malibu Colony. We passed through guarded gates to beachside mansions professionally decorated in elaborate ghoulish fashion. Up and down the street, generous hosts handed out fistfuls of candy or full-size candy bars. One offered an open bar and encouraged donations to UNICEF. All around us were revelers enjoying the decadent night, filling up on empty calories and joy.

“Twenty-four hours ago we were handing out groceries,” my husband reminded me, as we sat on the deck of a beach house listening to the ocean. It felt like much longer. Good thing we only have to wait until the Sunday before Thanksgiving for our next opportunity. “Bring gloves,” we were advised. “Those frozen turkeys get really cold.”

We will be there. Maybe you will, too.

Donate frozen turkeys to One on One Outreach, at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades, 16019 Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades. Frozen turkeys will be collected there November 13, 14 and 15, and November 18. Contact me with questions.

What’s your favorite way to help others? Do you have a Thanksgiving tradition? Please share it.

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