Thanksgiving tradition continues

By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

A pair of long-standing Thanksgiving Day traditions in Baton Rouge will continue although with a decidedly different look as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul will host its annual Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless at its men’s homeless shelter and also host the Holiday Helpers lunch at the Raising Cane’s River Center, which is open to the general public. 

However, because of the pandemic, no indoor seating will be available. Rather, meals at the homeless shelter will be distributed through a to-go window and drive through will be available at the River Center, according to St. Vincent President and CEO Michael Acaldo.

St. Vincent has been serving hot meals on Thanksgiving Day since 1982 and Holiday Helpers was established in 1987.

“At St. Vincent de Paul we are excited about keeping these traditions alive,” Acaldo said. “COVID-19 has put a lot of question marks in a lot of things but we had always planned to do both.

“We would have liked to have had a sit down dinner but we really did not want to do anything that could be a (virus) super spreader event.”

Acaldo said limiting exposure to volunteers and patrons was a priority. As a result, because of the changes the typical army of 300 volunteers will be reduced to about 75.

“Louisiana (coronavirus) numbers are not looking all that bad but we really don’t know what those numbers will look like come (Thanksgiving Day),” he said. “No doubt it’s going to be a challenge; we know that.”

Acaldo was thrilled with the news that for the second consecutive year Congregation B’nai Israel in Baton Rouge has agreed to donate the turkeys through its annual Turkey Train campaign.

Effects of the pandemic will likely reduce the number of people served, Acaldo acknowledged. He said a year ago, the venues provided close to a combined 1,200 Thanksgiving lunches but hopes to distribute at least 1,000 meals this year.

Acaldo also recognizes the increased difficulty in getting food to individuals so his agency is partnering with local church groups and  ther organizations to identify those in need and have those groups commit to picking up the meals as well as be responsible for distribution.

“We will get the meals out (to the needy) in that way,” Acaldo said, adding he is “excited about the prospect of being able to do that for those in need.”

Sadly, he said, because of no indoor seating the meals will not be all-you-can-eat, a tradition at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter at the homeless shelter.

“That is one of the downsides because we do have some folks that will come and they are very hungry,” Acaldo said. “Being able to serve all-you-can-eat is something we always enjoy.”

The popular turkey carving contest, held the day before Thanksgiving, will also be held, with  the contestants appropriately social distanced. The contest features local celebrities, political officials and even sports figures exhibiting creativity in showing off their carving skills, trying to impress each other and the judges who ultimately decide the winners.

“We felt comfortable we could pull it off and why not let the contest rock and roll,” Acaldo said. “It is a lot of fun and it’s kind of a Capital City tradition to kick off Thanksgiving and Advent.”

He said the carving contest leads into the busiest time of the year at St. Vincent de Paul, with the Thanksgiving weekend seeing a larger number of meals served to the homeless, then dovetailing into the holiday season.

“We get to touch a lot of lives, and it’s very rewarding to see the impact on the lives of the people who are truly in need,” Acaldo said.

He proudly noted St. Vincent de Paul Society also served the Baton Rouge community in 1918 when a Spanish flu pandemic created lockdowns and mask wearing eerily similar to that of current times. Admittedly, he is uncertain how the staff was able to provide the services but he is certain they “felt the uplifting feeling of being able to be there for someone who was truly in need at the time.”
“It seems like 2020 is a year back and forth,” he ruefully added. “Hopefully next year we can get back to the norm.”

Meals will be served at the River Center from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. and at St. Vincent de Paul from 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m.