The Catholic Commentator 

A long standing Thanksgiving tradition that has spanned three decades will be flying under the banner of the St. Vincent de Paul Society beginning this year. 

The organization is taking the reins from Holiday Helpers, which has been serving nearly 1,000 Thanksgiving meals annually for 30 years. Reginald Brown and a small band of volunteers who have established and nurtured the tradition as it hopscotched its way across three different hotels in Baton Rouge before settling in at the Raising Cane’s River Center are aging, and Brown admitted they all realized the time had come for a change. 

But he only knew he had to look to his good friend and one time protégée Michael Acaldo, executive director at St. Vincent de Paul, for assistance. 

“We reached a point where our members decided it would be best to pass the torch on to an interested service agency,” said Brown, a parishioner at St. Joseph Cathedral in Baton Rouge. “The only person that came to mind was (Acaldo) because we wanted to make sure (the dinner) would continue. When we talked to Michael, he gratefully said, ‘We will accept that task.'” 

Acaldo, whose own St. Vincent de Paul Thanksgiving dinner serves more than 600 homeless or downtrodden men and women annually, said his organization is privileged to take on such an important responsibility.

“To be entrusted with this is an honor for St. Vincent de Paul,” said Acaldo, who calls Brown his hero and mentor. “We will continue to do what we are doing, but I think for St. Vincent de Paul it gives us another opportunity to fulfill our mission by reaching people we cannot right now.”

So instead of 600 meals, St. Vincent will now be responsible for serving close to 1,600 dinners with all of the trimmings. He and his staff have already toured the River Center facility, mapped out what is going to happen and how it is going to happen. But, he continually emphasized that Brown will remain in what Acaldo calls a “grandfather” role. 

“I intend to be there if no more than a flower on the wall,” Brown said. “I don’t move as fast as I did 30 years ago but I know it’s in good hands. I have no doubts or concerns.” 

Acaldo said the River Center is making the facility available as well as the staff to prepare the meals. He said his organization will be responsible for the staffing of close to 300 volunteers to assist in the 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. window when the dinners will be served.

“We are going to make sure that it is successful again,” said Acaldo, adding that the theme for the dinner is “Passing the Torch.” “We have (Brown) right there to make sure we take every step that needs to be taken. 

“What (Holiday Helpers) used to do, that is our role,” he added. “We are going to make sure that it is successful again.” 

Community support has helped drive each of the Thanksgiving dinners for many years. The Congregation B’nai Israel contributes more than 100 turkeys to St. Vincent through what Acaldo calls the congregation’s annual “turkey train,” and a “wonderful interfaith collaboration.”

Many of the trimmings are donated, although Acaldo said there is always a need for more canned yams and green beans. Financial donations help fill in the void to complete the dinners.  

But how does one go about preparing to feed an additional 1,000 people? 

“(Brown) said ‘don’t’ worry about anything. I am going to take care of it,'” Acaldo said. “What he has done is getting people who have contributed to Holiday Helpers to support St. Vincent de Paul. In addition to continuing having people support what we do, we need the community as a whole to continue. He has a done a wonderful job helping us to establish those relationships.”

As an added touch, Acaldo said the 13 surviving members of Brown’s original 16 volunteers are being invited to the River Center where, rather than serving, they will be served. He said it is a way to pay tribute to those individuals who sacrificed 30 years of their own Thanksgiving celebrations so that others, including the elderly, the lonely, the needy and the homeless may have a memorable holiday.  

“We are keeping Holiday Helpers alive,” he said. “And the reason we are is that (Brown) and the members of his community came together to do something very remarkable.  

“Holiday Helpers will be remembered as revered community members who put their faith into action and made a difference. This is something that is really right, something that should be celebrated.” The traditional 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. hours will be maintained at St. Vincent de Paul, with Bishop Robert W. Muench scheduled to offer the blessing.