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Finding joy in a bleak Thanksgiving

A Thanksgiving ago, many of us were fretting over delays at the airport, our holiday season shopping lists, even things like whether to get another Botox injection or a new set of wheels.
Thanksgiving in Hard Times
Janet Mares, center, and her daughter Monica, 9, receive food at the Grace Resource Center in Lancaster, Calif. on Tuesday.Ric Francis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Thanksgiving ago, many of us were fretting over delays at the airport, our holiday season shopping lists, even things like whether to get another Botox injection or a new set of wheels.

Now we worry about keeping gas in the car. Or just keeping the car.

This Thanksgiving, a slumping economy is making many Americans more fearful than thankful.

And yet, as grim as these days are, millions of Americans are still preparing to turn a meal into a celebration — to find joy in the midst of growing hardship.

You could see glimmers of it everywhere — from the suburbs north of Los Angeles, where families who once lived in new homes lined up for free food, to Denver, where dozens down on their luck answered an Internet ad for Thanksgiving dinner, to a church on Wall Street, where a clergyman repeatedly struggled to answer the question of the moment: Will the hard times ever end?

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Thanks to Craigslist
At turkey time last year, Monique White was unemployed, living in a cramped motel room and pining for the Thanksgivings of her childhood, when dozens of people would gather for a holiday feast.

Today a receptionist at a dentist's office, she has a townhouse in Littleton, Colo. And, thanks to an Internet posting, a list of Thanksgiving dinner guests — strangers all — who will help her eat nine turkeys, four hams, 16 boxes of stuffing and a dozen or so pies.

How did this happen?

Image: Monique White
Monique White prepares one of many pumpkin pies at her Littleton, Colo., home Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008. Monique placed an ad on Craig's List inviting anyone who wanted to come and have Thanksgiving dinner at her home. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)Jack Dempsey / FR42408 AP

White, 36, was feeling a bit lonesome a week ago; her two sons were planning to spend the holiday with their father. And though her longtime partner, Doug White, would be there for her on Thanksgiving, she longed to be surrounded by many more people.

So she posted invitations on Craigslist, the Internet classifieds site. In part, one read:

"Maybe you are someone who is new in town and doesn't have anywhere to go. Maybe you are a small family that wouldn't be able to afford Thanksgiving dinner otherwise. Maybe you are just looking to change up your normal Thanksgiving tradition. ... We have room at our table this year."

She figured four folks, maybe five would answer. But then the replies poured in: People laid off from work. People with no family. People ashamed to bring their children to a Thanksgiving dinner at a soup kitchen.

"I thought: There's was no way I can judge who is worthy of sitting at my table. I have to invite them all," White says.

In all, 32 people are expected for dinner.

When White's boss heard what she was doing, he offered to pay for the food. Then a local hotel offered to provide tables and chairs. Then a professional magician said he would like to perform for the kids.

Certainly a far cry from Thanksgiving 2007, White says. "Last year it was just us two. It was horrible."

Doug White has been busy baking turkeys, putting one in the oven as soon as another comes out.

"People need to stop being so worried about me, me, me, my bills, my life," he says. "You stop worrying, and look what happens?"

A dying boy, an inspiring wish
Before dying of leukemia last week, 11-year-old Brenden Foster had put together his very own "Bucket List." Item No. 1 on the boy's things-to-do-before-I-die list?

Feed the homeless.

Brenden, as it turned out, was too sick to handle that one on his own. Diagnosed with blood cancer in August 2005, he suffered a relapse last December. By this summer, doctors told the fifth-grader he hadn't long to live.

Then, earlier this month, KOMO-TV in Seattle aired a report about the boy's wish list. Within days the word had spread all the way down the Pacific Coast, and the response was startling.

In Los Angeles, the Union Rescue Mission, a nonprofit shelter, served 2,500 meals this month to the homeless in Brenden's honor. When it distributed sack lunches to the needy, two words were written on the front of each pouch: "Love Brenden."

Image: Brenden Foster
** FILE ** In this file image rendered from video and provided by KOMO-TV, Brenden Foster, 11, is shown in his Bothell, Wash., home. Three years ago, doctors diagnosed Brenden with leukemia and Brenden's dying wish was to help the homeless. Foster died Friday, Nov. 21, 2008, according to KOMO-TV Seattle. (AP Photo/KOMO-TV, File) ** NO SALES **KOMO-TV

In Seattle, near the suburb of Bothell, where the curly-haired boy lived, volunteers prepared hundreds of sandwiches to give away — ham and cheese, Brenden's favorite, and peanut butter and jelly. (The boy wanted to make sure vegetarian homeless people had something to eat.)

By Thanksgiving, a Seattle campaign collected more than 60,000 pounds of donated food to be distributed among the state's food banks for the holiday. "I don't have much myself," read one note, attached to a donation, "but your wish touched me and I'm going to do what I can."

Says Camille Wells, a spokeswoman with the nonprofit Food Lifeline: "I can't say we would have gotten the same response from people if it wasn't for his request."

Brenden died Friday at home. He told his family he wasn't afraid of death, just sad that he didn't have more time on Earth to do more, says Patricia McMorrow, his grandmother. The boy's other wishes: To save honeybees and clean up Seattle's Puget Sound.

In the desert, view from a food bank
Turn down nearly any street in Lancaster, Calif., a former military town that entered the 21st century as one of the nation's fastest-growing suburbs, and behold: Almost-new houses with boarded-up windows, for-sale signs in the yards, and moving trucks in the driveways.

Stop at the Grace Resource Center, a couple of miles from a neighborhood called Prairie Rose, and see this: families, some of whom used to live in these houses, waiting in line for free food.

Among them this week was Randy McClure, who lost his job as a school custodian a year ago and has yet to find another. He has a wife, two kids and a home of 14 years that is in foreclosure. In better times, he used to volunteer at Grace Resource.

"I helped people who needed help — like we need help now," McClure, 48, says with a chuckle.

He gestures to the scores of people waiting patiently in line with him Tuesday for their food allotment. It will be more than enough to get them through the holidays, but some will return on Thursday for a Thanksgiving dinner.

Image: Steve Baker
Steve Baker, left, executive director at the Grace Resource Center chats with people waiting to receive groceries Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008, in Lancaster, Calif. The center provides a wide range of services from food banks, job training to social services, and is struggling to keep up with a huge influx of people needing assistance. A slumping economy is making many Americans more fearful than thankful. (AP Photo/Ric Francis)Ric Francis / AP

Steve Baker, an amiable man of 56 with the girth of a small bear and a graying goatee, knows McClure, as he does many of those lined up for food. Some went to his high school, 40 years ago.

"This year more than ever it's emotionally draining, because we're seeing more middle-class folks coming in than ever before," says Baker, who has run Grace Resource since its opening in 1991. "They're broke. They're embarrassed. Some of them are mad."

He saw this cactus-and-sagebrush-studded town in the Mojave Desert, 70 miles north of Los Angeles, fill up with tile-roofed houses with swimming pools and four-car garages. He watched the population mushroom from 10,000 to 145,000.

He is now too invested in Lancaster emotionally to be anywhere but this food bank on Thanksgiving Day, particularly since a fundraiser earlier this year that was expected to bring in $25,000 cleared just $14,000.

"A lot of very generous people have been very honest with us and are saying, `You know, we just don't have it to give this year.' And we understand that," he says.

One donor, who had no money to give, knitted a hundred winter caps instead. Others who turned up for food ended up helping distribute it, embarrassed, perhaps, that they had nothing to give.

To them, Baker had a simple message: "When things turn around, I know you'll be helping us again."

'Will the downturn ever end?'
From Trinity Church at the end of Wall Street, it's easy for the Rev. James Cooper to see one effect of the devastating layoffs in the financial district.

"There are simply fewer people on the street," Trinity's rector says.

He knows those missing people have lost their jobs, and he knows that layoffs in New York and elsewhere — and the trillions of dollars gone from Americans' personal wealth — mean stressful Thanksgivings in millions of homes.

As the historic Episcopal church prepared for its traditional holiday services — one at lunchtime Wednesday designed for business people, and one on Thursday for parishioners — Cooper suggested there might be something positive to come out of a worrisome Thanksgiving.

"Stress can make the relationships at the table more poignant and more valued, whether we're talking about the altar or a Thanksgiving table," he says. "If you think about it, Thanksgiving is founded in difficult times. The Pilgrims had buried 46 of their company of 102. How can you be thankful in that context?"

As the economy staggered in the run-up to Thanksgiving, Cooper and his staff found themselves struggling to counsel many Wall Streeters threatened with losing their jobs.

"They ask us if the downturn will ever end, and we say, `It always has,'" Cooper says. "And they ask, `Will life be different after?' And I think of 9/11, a horrible and horrendous day, but it led to new life and vitality — volunteerism, respect for each other."