Nov. 24—For the volunteers cooking and serving Thanksgiving dinners at area churches, missions and other organizations, Thursday's holiday was all about serving others.
"There were times in my life when people gave to me," Nanda Tucci said. "I am blessed to be able to give back."
Tucci of Reading was one of about 35 volunteers who helped serve platters of steaming turkey with all the fixings to residents and guests of the Hope Rescue Mission.
The mission, 645 N. Sixth St., is in its 128th year of sheltering, feeding and clothing men in need.
The dinner Thursday was open to residents and the public.
For immigrant Dharma Sivasamy serving at the mission was a way of memorializing his late parents and mother-in-law and carrying on the work they began in India.
His mother and father inspired him, he said, by opening their home and feeding anyone in need, particularly during the holidays.
A 25-year Reading resident, Sivasamy and his wife, Aarthy Dharma, donated 200 pounds of turkey, 40 pounds of stuffing, 100 pounds of potatoes and much of the other food cooked for the mission's traditional meal.
Digging into the remnants of a plate piled high with slices of turkey drenched in gravy, mounds of stuffing and scoops of mashed potatoes Javier Soto declared the food a blessing.
"I helped cook this," the 60-year old resident of the mission said with pride.
Without the mission, he added, polishing off the last morsel of stuffing, he would have nowhere to go.
Across the room, Moises Rosado began tackling the heaping platter placed before him.
"They just want to help people get back on their feet," he said of the mission.
A former resident, Rosado, 48, returned to the men's shelter for the annual holiday meal.
"I love the turkey and stuffing," he said. "It's all good."
But more than the food, Rosado said, it was the company and fellowship he wanted, especially after the months of isolation and social distancing during the height of the COVID pandemic.
"A lot of the residents are separated from their families," said Robert Turchi, executive director of the shelter. "We want everyone to feel like they have a place to go on the holiday."
Chef Ron Nolen bustled around the 16 festively decorated tables of the dining hall, topping pieces of pumpkin, apple and other pies with whipped cream.
It was encouraging, he said, to see the large number of volunteers, particularly since their number dwindled to just three or four during the worst COVID years.
The pandemic also had its effect on the annual holiday dinner served by St. John Missionary Baptist Church.
Canceled in 2020 and 2021, the free dinner resumed this year in take-out form only.
What COVID didn't change was who did the cooking.
Since 2013, the church's men's group, Men of Honor, has taken over the kitchen.
Twelve volunteers did most of the grunt work with a core group of five handling the bulk of the cooking.
"They act like I did all the cooking," head cook Al Williams said, "but they all helped me out."
Williams of Reading succeeded longtime chief cook Cleve Copeland, 83, who stepped down this year. Though Copeland's were big shoes to fill, Williams said, he was well prepared for the job by his mother and the long line of aunts, sisters and other female relatives who taught him to cook years ago.
Williams and his crew started early Thursday morning, baking three turkeys donated by OTC Fleet Services, Cumru Township, and three of the 10 hams donated by Berks Packing, Reading.
The remaining hams are being saved for a church community dinner next year, said Bill Pochuski Jr., president of the men's group.
From late morning through early afternoon, take-out containers filled with the roasted meats, candied yams, stuffing and other sides were handed out to those who pre-ordered or walked in.
Teams of church volunteers also distributed dinners at Fifth and Penn streets and supplied meals to staff at two area nursing homes.
"It's just awesome that they continued this tradition," Jeannette Giddens said of the event, "because it's needed."
The complimentary community dinner was founded by her late husband Gus Giddons, an associate minister of the church.
After he died in 2015, it was renamed The Gus Giddons Memorial Thanksgiving Dinner.
"He was always looking out for everybody," Giddens said of her late husband.
Need was the focus of another free take-out dinner on Reading's southside.
The Rev. Alex Lopez, pastor of Jesus is the Path of Salvation, and 10 church volunteers set up tables lined with chafing dishes outside the church at 146 S. Fifth St. and served the customary turkey and sides with rice and beans and other traditional Latino dishes to passersby.
Lopez is the owner of Fifth Street Barbers, which also occupies the premises.
This was the 10th year the church and barbershop collaborated on the dinner and clothing giveaway, he said.
Last year more than 300 were served, he said, and the group expected as many or more Thursday.
"We are doing it because that is what we are supposed to do," the pastor said.