During Thanksgiving week, the terrain in the Anthony Bowen Branch YMCA transforms itself as dramatically as the city does between summer and fall. Mountains of collard greens and turkeys and mounds of yams, breads and cakes replace the sneaker-clad kids on the gymnasium floor. The barked orders, banter and yells of Lillian Green supplant the youthful yelps of basketball players and slaps of high-fives.
"I need 12 turkeys over here, 12 turkeys!" Green shouts to the scores of volunteers filling the room. Out of the seeming chaos of toiling suburban and city school students, police officers, Safeway officials and Pepco workers, several hefty football players from Yorktown High School march forward with boxes of birds, destined for the tables of thousands of needy Washingtonians today.
By giving area residents a way to share food, money and time with the needy over the past 24 years, Lillian "Ma" Green, venerable queen of the city's volunteers, has made the annual holiday project a Washington institution, feeding an estimated 25,000 persons.
Less well known, however, is the equally durable partnership between Project Harvest and the Anthony Bowen Branch YMCA. The Y has been the headquarters for assembling and dispersing the holiday bounty for all the years of the project's existence.
"Here, meet Tom Hargrave," Lillian Green proudly tells a volunteer who had taken the day off from his job as a hotel chief of security to help assemble boxes and load food onto waiting delivery trucks. "He's the head man."
Thomas B. Hargrave Jr., president of the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington, is smiling -- happy about Project Harvest and the Anthony Bowen YMCA these days. Eight years ago, when Y officials voted to close the deteriorating Bowen branch on 12th Street NW and move it to temporary two-room quarters, a prolonged howl of protest went up.
Hargrave and his board were roundly attacked. How could the Y build a gleaming new $5.3 million headquarters at 17th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW for rich folks when it wouldn't find the money to restore the first black YMCA branch in the country?
In Shaw, Bowen had been an oasis in a desert of drug activity, substandard housing and poverty. Now, overnight, it was closed.
Hargrave, who had spent the first 13 years of his professional career working in segregated YMCAs in the South, was deeply disturbed by the black community's and media's criticism. For five years, the cramped temporary site was the Bowen home while Hargrave, the board, the community and the city tried alternative strategies to rebuild Bowen.
In l987, the Y board learned that the Hillcrest Children's Center at 1325 W St. NW was for sale, and purchased it for $3.5 million. After spending $700,000 to renovate Bowen, the Y reopened in newly refurbished headquarters, right where it was needed most -- in the middle of one of the city's most notorious drug markets.
Just as volunteers form the heart and soul of Project Harvest, they also play an important part in the operation of the Bowen branch of the Y. Kent T. Cushenberry, of International Business Machines, and Delano E. Lewis, president of Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., viewing the District's homicide statistics as a stunning example of how drugs and crime are destroying the city's youth, have served as co-chairmen of a capital campaign to pay for the building.
In addition, students from Howard University are paired with young girls from the community for a mentoring program. "The history of this institution is one of the reasons it is so special," said executive director Janice Williams, alluding to Bowen, the freed slave who founded the branch in l853.
Just Say No clubs, homework centers and recreational programs are among the activities offered to youths. Exercise programs that include aquatic aerobics are among the programs for seniors. Several of the senior citizens waiting patiently Tuesday in a second-floor room for their boxes of collards, turkey and yams said the Y's exercise programs are an essential part of their lives.
As I sit down to my Thanksgiving turkey today, I probably will be able to eat it with a little more peace of mind because of the efforts of Green, Hargrave and Williams and of all the volunteers who were loving and caring enough to count their blessings and create a small blessing for 25,000 others.