PATERSON, NJ - Bennie Cook was still sleeping when his phone rang at 7:16 am on Thanksgiving morning. The doors of the Integrity Masonic Temple on Broadway were locked, with about 12 people waiting in the cold outside, ready to start cooking Thanksgiving diner for the needy. Someone had to let them in, and Cook had the keys.
"I threw on some clothes and went down,'' said Cook. "It wasn't a problem. I know the good they do every year.''
It takes more than some locked doors to get in the way of a 27-year Paterson Thanksgiving tradition - the "Helping Hands" holiday meal run by Councilwoman Vera Ames-Garnes and the 4th Ward Alliance. The event brings together young and old, black and white, politicians and gadflies - all focused on giving something back on a day to give thanks.
"We usually get two to three hundred people here to eat and we get about 100 volunteers,'' said Ed Cotton, a Masonic Temple member, Helping Hands volunteer and veteran boxing referee. "It's open to anybody. We don't turn anybody away.''
By 10 am, the dinner preparations were well underway. Volunteers had sorted clothing donations in one corner of the hall. Others had cleaned the tables and covered them with tablecloths. The kitchen was a hubbub of activity: Fifteen volunteers were crammed in tight quarters, preparing the 12 turkeys, 50 pounds of potato salad, 50 pounds of collard greens, 24 large cans of yams, and more.
Jeanette Thompson, 63, was in charge of the cooking crew. She roamed the room, checking each platter and tray. She's been part of the event since it started back in the early 1980s. "We used to have four or five people in here, you can see what it's become now,'' said Thompson. "Some of the young people, they don't have the experience. You gotta keep your eye on them. You gotta make sure they prepare everything properly, make sure they wash everything right.''
Thompson didn't have to worry much about Mary Johnson, who was over at the stove, making the stuffing. Johnson has spent the last 23 Thanksgivings at Helping Hands. "I love people and I know there are people out there suffering,'' she said. Johnson was mixing cornbread with carrots, celery, onions and poultry seasoning. "Then I put in my own little stuff for extra flavor,'' she said. What is it? "I can't tell you that,'' she smiled.
Some volunteers at the Masonic Temple were second generation Helping Hands volunteers. Take the Pattersons, for examlpe. Gerline had started back when she was a teenager. Now she's 44 and had brought along her eight-year-old daughter, Jariah. "It makes you feel good,'' explained the elder Patterson.
Many of the volunteers came from city youth groups, kids whose friends were still sleeping, or on their way to the Turkey Bowl football game.
Paterson Great Falls YouthBuild had a contingent. "This is my way of giving back to the community,'' said Marckale Clarkson, 23. "I wanted to help the community,'' said Luis Rosario, 21. "It's a positive thing to feed people who don't have it,'' said Shawna Townes, 22.
Several teenagers from Passaic County Community College's College Bound/GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) were volunteering at Helping Hands for their fourth year. They recalled their experience serving meals the past couple years.
"It gives me closure, seeing that they have something to eat,'' said Jacklyn Zenteno, 16.
"It's very emotional when you see people coming in here that don't have the things we have,'' said Mia Smith, 17.