Funny, but it seems like Thanksgiving is an afterthought for many families who visit area food pantries this time of year. Turkey and dressing are nice – and so are macaroni and cheese, a sack of potatoes, shoes for the kids, and a bus pass or $5 for gas.

But with a little help from their East Dallas neighbors, some less fortunate people might re-discover the holiday spirit this November.

“Thanksgiving is just another day,” says Ernestine Reynosa, a widow who lost her cashier’s job at Wyatt’s Cafeteria and recently visited the White Rock Center of Hope on Garland Road as a last resort.

“My boys are grown. Their dad’s dead. After a while, it doesn’t mean that much anymore. You get so busy trying to make a living, you don’t think about the holidays.”

None of the area pantries turn away anyone who asks for food. Reynosa left the Center with three days’ worth of staples for her and a disabled son, a gas voucher to help in her job search and assurance the Center would pay a week’s back rent.

“I’m almost 56, and this is the first time I’ve asked for help,” Reynosa says.

“We’re kind of on the edge right now. But I’m pretty tough. Things only get so bad before they start getting better.”

All of the half-dozen area pantries hope to distribute turkey, ham and the trimmings this Thanksgiving. But each year, neighborhood agencies such as the White Rock Center of Hope, the Wilkinson Center and the Central Dallas Food Pantry send many people away without traditional holiday meals.

As an alternative, the pantries fill clients’ stomachs with bread, rice and canned beef stew, but shouldn’t every family be able to celebrate this holiday with a traditional turkey-and-dressing meal?

“I’ll plan to have a big Thanksgiving, if I can,” says Yvonne Green, who was visiting the White Rock Center with her 5-year-old son, Oliver Wendell Green.

“My husband has family, and I have a sister in Fort Worth who I’d like to invite. Thanksgiving is very important. That’s the way I’ve been raised.

“My kids know when it’s Thanksgiving, and they always ask: ‘Where’s the turkey?’”

The White Rock Center of Hope, located behind Colonial Presbyterian Church about a mile north of White Rock Lake, is one of the most prosperous local food pantries – probably because of its location away from the inner city, says director Debbie Batson.

Clients come mainly from the Casa Linda and Casa View areas, and they tend to fit that growing category of people who live two paychecks away from the street.

Henry “Steve” Stevenson, director of the Wilkinson Center at Bryan and Munger streets, says, “The most startling aspect of this job is the reality that if the family situation turns bad, how quickly you can move from the fringes of Highland Park to a tenement in East Dallas.

“We’re all closer to being on the street than we think right now, because the economic picture is so bleak.”

But bad times also bring some good in the form of donations and volunteers ready to help distribute clothes or food or to interview clients, Batson says.

“People are scared. The economy is starting to affect the middle class more, and that brings it all home,” she says.

“Everybody knows somebody who has gone through a layoff or is otherwise affected by the economy. People think: ‘It could be me.’”

Pearl Douillette (“That’s French-Canadian,” she says) has worked at the Wilkinson Center pantry for more than six years, distributing food three days a week to the largely minority clients who come in from the surrounding lower East Dallas community.

A small, leathery native of Concord, N.H., with an accent to match, Douillette briskly fills paper bags and boxes with food and totes the heavy packages into position for the needy families and individuals who will soon appear at her door.

The Center, located in space donated by Munger Place United Methodist Church, feeds the first 50 people who show up asking for food each day.

Interviewers determine whether applicants qualify for additional financial assistance, then send them downstairs to the pantry.

Dorothy Vaughan, a retiree in a Mexican print dress and intricately braided hair, slings packages of ramen noodles into a box while husband Bill answers calls from the interview room and fills out pink food assistance forms.

Gene Feaster, the youngest member of the group, says he completed his term of court-assigned community service at the pantry six months ago, but he keeps coming back.

“I’m retired, and I’ve got nothing else to do. It’s better than lying around the house,” says Feaster, a quiet, solidly build man with graying sideburns who wears a tan corduroy cap.

“I’ve been blessed, so I give my time to somebody else.”

Douillette recites the food allotments from memory: “Eight pounds for one person, 10 pounds for two, 14 for three, 18 for four, 24 pounds for five people.

“But they’ve got to go out and look for themselves, too. This is for emergencies, not to depend on month after month,” she says.

“What brought me to Texas? I married a damn Texan,” she says. “That didn’t last long, though. He drank too much.” Douillette retired after 20 years at J.C. Penney and says, “I didn’t want to stay at home all day. I have a neighbor in my apartment building who just sits and drinks. You talk about a waste.

“I say: ‘George, you could come on down and help me at the pantry.’ He says: ‘No, I just can’t.’ I’d go crazy if I sat in my apartment seven days a week.”

The pantry’s clients begin to arrive, men and women and children, some poorly fed and distracted-looking, others all business as they pick through boxes of fruits and vegetables on hallway tables.

A man named Joe Smith, who lives in the Dallas Housing Authority’s Roseland Homes apartment complex in East Dallas and works as a warehouseman, complains about child-support payments that left him without enough money to buy groceries.

If he celebrates Thanksgiving at all, Smith says, it will be at his mother’s home.

“I’m not going to live on the street just to pay child support. I gotta have a pack of cigarettes or something,” he says.

Smith hopes his wife will return, although the holiday spirit seems far from his mind.

“I would like to get back with her so I can get some of my money back,” he says.

Whatever indignities that have befallen him haven’t diminished Eugene Brokeshoulder’s outlook on life. And though he approaches Thanksgiving from a different perspective than the grateful immigrants who first celebrated the holiday, it’s still a time for him to visit his sons and grandchildren in Oklahoma.

“I’m a full-blooded American Indian,” says Brokeshoulder, 53. He recently started work as a maintenance man at the Federal Reserve Bank and needs help until he receives his first paycheck.

“I’ve worked in hotels, convenience stores, as a store clerk, everything that comes around. I’m going to get my Social Security when I’m 60, go home to Oklahoma and spend time with my grandkids,” he says.

“I couldn’t do without my grandkids. If I’ve got 10 or 15 dollars in my pocket, I give it to them. I tell my children, if I’m gone with the Lord, you keep on with them.

“They all have good jobs and are doing fine, but I tell them, there’s going to be some good times and there’s going to be some bad times. You’re going to have a taste of it like I did…”

He doesn’t quite finish the thought, but Brokeshoulder is referring to the ideals of perseverance, hope, sharing and brotherly love that make Thanksgiving meaningful for people and their families.

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