For needy in D.C., Dunbar High students made Thanksgiving feast especially sweet

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 9:58 PM

Plate after plate moved down a line of volunteers who loaded on cranberry sauce, then a roll, and then turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, greens, mashed potatoes and gravy.

Plate after plate - about 5,000 in all - was loaded onto massive trays. Then the football team took over.

The players from Dunbar High School joined hundreds of volunteers Wednesday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center for a Thanksgiving feast for city residents in need of a warm, free meal and maybe some companionship.

This is the 11th year that Safeway supermarkets and other sponsors, including Metropolitan Baptist Church and the Salvation Army, have hosted the event. And it's not just a dinner; Wednesday's gathering also featured a job fair, health screenings and free clothing.

Dinner was served restaurant-style to people sitting at flower-laden tables. Dunbar's men's and women's basketball and track teams helped serve plates of food. The football team took care of handing out sodas. Soon after came a round of apple and pumpkin pie slices.

Angela Hawkins attended one of the dinners years ago, but didn't realize it was an annual event. Earlier this week, the 46-year-old mother was shopping for her Thanksgiving groceries in Northeast Washington when she realized she had lost her wallet. A Safeway employee invited her to the dinner.

"I thought that it was a one-time thing only, because it was so nice," said Hawkins, who attended Wednesday's feast with her 4-year-old son. "I might cook something tomorrow, go up to church, but nothing like this."

Safeway provided buses from their stores to the convention center for some in attendance. Others walked from surrounding neighborhoods.

Gwendolyn Daniel, 75, came with a group from her apartment building, Victory Heights in Northwest Washington. She wore a blue suit with a matching hat, and recalled previous Thanksgivings when the Salvation Army gave her large baskets of food for her five children, who are all grown.

"We come every year. Everything's so nice and there are kids everywhere," she said of the event. "I just love it, sitting down and relaxing."

Carlton Townsend, 47, looks forward to holiday dinners like this one each year. The dinner provided Wednesday by Safeway and earlier in the week by a nearby church are some of the best meals he has each year, he said.

Trying to make his own Thanksgiving dinner would be expensive, or he would have to spend "at least $15 or higher, really, depending on what restaurant you go to," said Townsend, who lives in Southeast.

As the guests ate in two shifts, they listened to a local radio DJ in a pilgrim hat, a singing beauty pageant winner and corporate officials. A few politicians were on hand, including D.C. Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D) and City Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who helped serve food with his wife and their six children.

R&B singer Raheem DeVaughn was there to pass out turkey dinners, too. He talked about returning to the D.C. area, helping those less fortunate and how he feels grateful for his musical journey.

"This is my second year," DeVaughn said. "I think this is a great thing to do with the climate in the country and this time of the season and giving back to let people know that we care about them and put a smile on their face. It only takes a couple of hours out of the day to give back and step outside of yourself."

DeVaughn, who graduated from High Point High School in 1993, said the event was a special homecoming. "I love D.C. I love the youth. I love the fact that a lot of youth are out here today." He credited his success to the people who have been in his life. "Having mentors, principals and my parents made the difference, but some youth are not as fortunate to have that."

Dunbar Athletic Director Johnnie Walker snapped photos of the school's students as they helped provide to people in need.

"It's not like they really have a lot to give themselves, but no matter what they are going through themselves, there are people who are in worse situations," Walker said. "Everyone watches NFL TV and sees the players giving back to the community. . . . It should be something done at this level, so these kids have that perspective on life."

Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.

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