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Across the region, Thanksgiving focuses on the 'giving'

By Caitlin Gibson and Nathan Rott
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 9:45 PM

Fourteen years ago on Thanksgiving Day, Randy and Necola Staples loaded a holiday feast and their 1-year old son into the family van, drove to downtown Washington and passed out hot meals to every needy person they passed.

"We wanted to have a Thanksgiving tradition for our family," said Randy, 40, "and to show our kids that there is more to Thanksgiving than sitting around and eating."

The tradition stuck - and, as need has grown in the area, so has their custom. On Thursday, the Staples family dished out turkey, ham, sweet potatoes and more.

Only this time, they traveled from their home in Silver Spring to two locations, Franklin Park at 13th and I streets NW, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, where they distributed about 700 meals. They had help from more than 200 volunteers, mostly strangers who had heard of the Staples family tradition by word-of-mouth.

The Staples's three sons have never spent Thanksgiving without serving food. Son Randall, 15, said he plans to keep it that way.

"I'm going to take it over someday," he said.

Demand for such help has jumped in recent years. Charitable organizations throughout the region say the number of people seeking food, shelter and emergency services has increased by 30 percent to 50 percent since the recession hit two years ago.

"The need is certainly up," said Ken Forsythe, spokesman for the Salvation Army's regional command.

The Salvation Army has helped about 8,000 people in the Washington area this holiday season, Forsythe said. It served 200 Thanksgiving dinners Thursday - about a 25 percent jump from last year - at the Waterford Restaurant in Fairfax County.

In the District, the number of homeless families grew by 10 percent over the past year, said John Adams, president and chief executive of So Others Might Eat, an interfaith organization that provides food, clothing, health care and social services to the District's homeless.

The 40-year-old organization has kept up with demand through a steady flow of donations, even as the economy has challenged thousands in the area, Adams said. "Many families, even as things get tougher for them, know that people below them are having an even worse time," he said.

At SOME, staff members and volunteers work to treat the the homeless with dignity and respect, Adams said, a principle that was evident on Thanksgiving, as staff members and volunteers prepared the dining room for a midday lunch service. The tables recalled a restaurant with careful settings and presentation.

"You make sure that the forks and knives are laid nicely on the napkin, and you make sure the point of the pie is toward the diner," said Marianne Smith of Arlington County, who has volunteered at SOME with her husband and two sons every Thanksgiving for the past 10 years. "You set the table the way you would at your own house, for your own guests."

Michelle Billups played hostess. "Happy Thanksgiving! Welcome to our five-star restaurant!" she shouted as guests began to trickle into the dining room that serves close to 300,000 meals each year. Billups, a tall African American woman with a big smile and a big voice, greeted many by name.

Over her five years as a full-time staff member, she has learned many of their stories; on Thursday, she pointed out the young black man in bloodstained pants and wheelchair who told her he recently lost both his legs after being shot, and a petite woman clutching a white teddy bear who left her husband and children in Africa and has been living in a shelter for nine months.

"Hey there, honey," said Billups, touching the sleeve of an elderly man in a disheveled coat as he bent to take a seat. She waltzed down the aisle between the tables as music filled the dining room. "I'm so glad we have this time together!"

Aid organizations say it's easy to find volunteer help during the holidays. SOME used to turn away hundreds of willing volunteers who called - often, months ahead of time - hoping to volunteer for a holiday shift. (SOME serves slightly fewer people on Thanksgiving than many days, Adams said, because there are so many other places the needy can go.)

About nine years ago, SOME started hosting a 5K Thanksgiving Trot for Hunger to provide those people with a way to help through sponsorships and registration fees, Adams said. About 100 people participated in the first run. This Thanksgiving, he said, 5,000 joined in.

The outpouring of compassion is wonderful, Adams said, but he wishes it were sustained year-round.

"For people in need, Thanksgiving should be every day," he said.

gibsonc@washpost.com rottn@washpost.com

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