Anne Wightman, Samaritan Care and Community Center Coordinator for City Mission in Washington, vividly recalls a Thanksgiving Day nine years ago when the only dinner she could afford to serve her family was chicken noodle soup.
Wightman knows first-hand the embarrassment and frustration that Washington County families struggling to make ends meet feel when they’re faced with trying to provide a Thanksgiving dinner on one of the biggest holidays of the year.
So Wightman was delighted that the City Mission distributed 791 Boxes of Love – Thanksgiving dinners complete with a turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, canned vegetables, and a board game – to food insecure families starting on Monday, when the nonprofit gave out 400 boxes at its West Wheeling Street campus.
The boxes do more than alleviate hunger: they bring families together on Thanksgiving Day.
“My husband passed away nine years ago from addiction. He actually was homeless when he passed away. Through no fault of his own – he had back surgeries – he got addicted to Oxycontin and then started using heroin, and it took over him. One Thanksgiving, I gave my children chicken noodle soup because that’s what we had, and in my mind I’m thinking about how the house two doors down is feeding their children a Thanksgiving meal and how nice it would be just to have that normalcy because those moments of normalcy are how you get to the next moment of normalcy,” said Wightman. “Just for a parent to be able to supply their child with something normal, or just for a child to feel normal that they’re sitting down and doing the same thing that their friends are doing, it’s so important.”
City Mission partnered with Shepherd’s Finance and 2000 Turkeys, which provided the turkeys for Boxes of Love.
Brian Johansson, City Mission’s COO, brought the idea of Boxes of Love to the nonprofit about seven years ago.
A native New Yorker, Johansson worked with the homeless population at the Bowery Mission, which operated a Boxes of Love program.
In its first year, Boxes of Love provided 50 dinners for Washington County families.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and rising costs due to inflation, the need for help has exploded in 2022.
“Boxes of Love kind of encompasses compassion in a box,” said Johansson. “You think about a family not having a Thanksgiving dinner, it’s something we all take for granted. But there are a lot of folks who just don’t have the resources to have a Thanksgiving dinner, so why not provide everything you need for a Thanksgiving dinner in that box?”
Volunteers from Shepherd’s Finance and Pennsylvania American Water helped City Mission staff and residents pass out the boxes, as recipients lined up outside more than an hour before the distribution started.
Among those who picked up a Box of Love was Tami Hindman of Washington, who is on a fixed income. Hindman’s daughter and three grandchildren, all of whom are autistic, live with her. She also cares for her parents who have dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“This means that I now know my family can have a Thanksgiving dinner. I’m very thankful for this place up here,” said Hindman.
Hindman said the skyrocketing costs of food, clothing, diapers, and utilities have stretched her budget.
“I’ve got my hands full and it’s stressful, but I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I’m thankful for what I’ve got,” said Hindman.
Wightman said Boxes of Love provides hope for struggling families.
“We want to give them a little bit of hope for tomorrow. That’s why I’m passionate about getting out as many Thanksgiving Boxes of Love as we possibly can,” said Wightman.
Wightman said programs like Boxes of Love are unifying in today’s partisan environment.
“In these times of unrest in families and in the country, and humanity as a whole, what matters is to try and appreciate your family and the love that you have, and just exhale together and have a meal and just love each other and see each other where they are,” said Wightman.
In 2021, City Mission served more than 100,000 meals to residents and the community. Johansson views food as a gateway to a life-changing experience at the mission.
“No matter how bad things get, we can always be thankful, and I think that’s the message for Thanksgiving,” said Johansson. “We have a lot to be thankful for. Even though times can be difficult, and even in the difficult times, I think we have a lot to be thankful for.”
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