Giving Back on Thanksgiving

According to American legend, the Pilgrims would not have survived their first year if the Wampanoag tribe hadn’t given them food and taught them how to farm. At the end of harvest season, the Pilgrims gave thanks to God and the Native Americans with a celebratory feast. Thanksgiving reminds us that, like the Pilgrims, we are all dependent – in one way or another – on the good will of strangers. If we understand the spirit of the holiday correctly, we will go beyond giving thanks for our good fortune and try to follow the example set by the Native Americans – share your food, meet the needs in your community, and live by a value system that advocates giving back.

Five years ago Cindy Cook and her sister, Jennifer Smith, decided to put some of those principles into action. Inspired by their father, Jennifer and Cindy started thinking about service projects for the Thanksgiving holiday. “Growing up, I remember my dad mentoring young men, and buying meals for people in need,” Cindy says. “He always drilled into our heads how lucky we were and that we should never forget those who come upon tough times,” Jennifer told me. “Most importantly, he taught us not to judge others, but to help them.”

They decided to focus their volunteer efforts on homelessness. They searched online, made a list of shelters in the area, and started making calls. They singled out the Bethesda Project in Philadelphia because it had a real need and they admired its mission and vision. The Bethesda Project is a faith-based not-for-profit organization that provides housing, empowerment and transitional assistance to the chronically homeless in Philadelphia.

Homelessness was a project that resonated because, as Cindy explains, “We often take our home for granted, but all it takes is a lost job, lack of support from your family, financial hardships, or substance abuse to end up in the trying circumstances these men are in. It is by the grace of God that we are not in the same challenging situation.”

With help from their immediate family, Jennifer and Cindy sponsor Thanksgiving dinner for one of the Bethesda shelters. Each year they plan the menu, buy the ingredients, cook, serve dinner, and sit with the residents, sharing their meal. Afterwards, they clean up and head to their family’s house for a second Thanksgiving dinner.

For Cindy, the project has been, “a true pleasure. I consider Bethesda Project and all of the residents that we have encountered over the past few years family and friends.” From the residents and the staff, Cindy has learned about homelessness. A staff member explained that homelessness, “starts as a physical state then develops into a psychological state of mind and emotional state of helplessness.” The most rewarding part of her volunteer experience has been seeing the men lift themselves out of homelessness with the support of the Bethesda Project, which provides counseling, continuing education classes, job opportunities, and more.

“So many of the gentleman we encounter are involved in the community and taking great strides to improve their circumstances,” she told me. “This year, one of the residents was talking to us about his new job. He had been working since August and everything is going very well. It was great to see the pride on his face. He said that he enjoyed our company, but would not be seeing us next year as he would not be a Bethesda Project’s resident for too much longer. It was so exciting to hear his success story!”

When asked what advice she would give to anyone thinking about taking on a similar project Cindy stresses the importance of finding an organization that you, “personally connect with and share their same mission/vision/values. This will keep you interested, dedicated and involved for the long-term.” Cindy encourages everyone to, “Get involved, you will not regret it! Many not-for-profit organizations need assistance and you would be surprised how you will learn and develop as an individual, group, organization or family from involving yourself in a service activity.”

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