The season’s first snow fell as a reminder: Winter is coming, and even at its coldest and hardest, there is beauty to see if you look hard enough.
Outside of the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena, thousands of people lined up for a bit of that beauty and the makings of a great free meal: a 12-pound turkey, 5 pounds of potatoes, 5 pounds of apples, canned goods, bread. Maybe a jug of milk.
On Tuesday, 7,500 of those meals were given away to hungry families and veterans, the disabled, young and old, as part of Tom’s Turkey Drive, which is in its 16th year.
In all this year, the collaboration between 2nd Harvest, Rosauers, Numerica Credit Union, Rockwood Health Systems, Franz Bakery, Itron, KREM-2 and its meteorologist Tom Sherry, will provide 11,000 holiday meals to folks in the Inland Northwest.
Last week’s windstorm did little to stop people from giving to the drive. Rosauers and Huckleberries sold more than 7,600 meals on Friday and Saturday – even as the delis had record days helping to feed those whose kitchens were left temporarily defunct.
For those who always need help, the drive was appreciated – and a hit. More than 1,500 meals were given away in the first hour of Tuesday’s event.
Chris O’Grady spent 26 years building “bridges and highways” as a surveyor.
“I used to be able to do trig in my head faster than the kids in college,” said O’Grady, 47, wearing his father’s Vietnam-era Army jacket and black felt cowboy hat. A frozen turkey weighed down the backpack dangling from the rear of his wheelchair.
Two years ago, he was hit by a car in front of his house, leaving him unable to walk, with severe, and permanent, nerve damage.
“He didn’t hit the brakes until he hit me. Then he slid 30 feet,” he said, somehow with a smile. In what he calls the “definition of irony,” he survived decades of dangerous road work unscathed, but was run down by a driver distracted by text messages not far from his front door.
Seven surgeries later, he makes $190 in monthly supplemental security income from the government. He barely gets by on the benefits. Thanksgiving would have gone on, with or without the free meal he had on his lap. He simply would’ve cut corners and skimped on other expenses.
“It’s my favorite time of year,” he said. “There are a lot of good people out there. You just have to look for them.”
Elizabeth Jackson and her mother, Jerine Herriman, are in high spirits. Soon, their pantry will be stocked.
They walked down to the Arena from the drafty old two-bedroom apartment they share with three other people, all living on Social Security income.
Do they ever go hungry? “Not very often,” said Herriman, 59.
Are they prepared for Thanksgiving? “Not very well,” said Jackson, 37.
But they laughed in the wet snow, noting that living on government vouchers is tough, but doable.
“It’s easier with roommates,” said Jackson.
Frederic Arias had two little girls dangling from either arm, sliding on the packed snow in the parking lot.
On his left, his daughter, Gisele, giggled with each slip. On his right Kobe Swayne, his niece, squealed with each slide. The enthusiasm and patience of the 7-year-old girls were far from flagging, even though the long line wound in on itself a few times before jutting into the snowy parking lot.
“This turnout. It’s crazy,” said Arias, a veteran who heard about the turkey drive at the VA.
His Thanksgiving will be just he and his three children, and if he hadn’t heard about the free meal, he and the kids would’ve gone down to their church to eat.
“I’m a single dad,” he said. “I’m a father that’s in recovery.”
Next month, Arias will have been sober a full year.
“We’re blessed,” he said. “We’re just happy we can get a free basket.”
Frederick Parks said to call him Rev. Freddy.
As the line slowly moved forward, Parks said Thanksgiving would have “not really” happened without the free meal. He spends too much of his income on his “eight grandbabies.”
Parks, a minister for 40 years, moved to Spokane when he was 10, and his mother worked three different jobs as a nurse. As he detailed his mother’s long daily schedule – from dawn till late at night, running from one hospital to the next – her memory brightened his smile.
“Margaret Parks,” he said. “She loved nursing. She really loved nursing.”
Parks’ father worked as a janitor, and he said he and his brothers and sisters never went without.
“I didn’t like bologna,” he said. “But I really liked salami.”
Irven Peters has his 2-year-old granddaughter, Kyleena, on his lap, and a tank of oxygen strapped to the back of his wheelchair.
She munched on an orange peanut butter cracker, confused by questions about Thanksgiving.
“We haven’t really talked about that yet,” said Irven, who clearly dotes on Kyleena and her sister, Baylee. Irven’s daughter and her husband, and their two daughters, share a home and will share a meal this Thursday. This is their fourth time coming to the turkey drive, and it means something to them.
“It means I get to cook for the whole day,” said Irven, relishing the idea. “I’m the chef.”
“Orange carrots,” chirped his daughter, Katrina, naming a family favorite.
“I make a mean bowl of candied yams,” Irven replied.
“I’m here through the grace of God,” said Marcelle Phillips.
The wind had taken her power for more than a day, a seemingly interminable amount of time, and quite a dangerous situation, when you’re in a wheelchair, connected to an oxygen tank and “on life support. “
“I can’t get out of the house. I can’t get down the steps. There were no buses,” she said. “Spokane was totally unprepared.”
Just before the lights came back on, she assessed her oxygen and calculated the hours she had left.
There weren’t many. At the 27th hour of cold and dark, power returned to her.
“All sorts of it,” she said. “I had to thank Jesus.”
Phillips’ caretaker, Alice Doss, is feeding 82 people on Thanksgiving, but Phillips is staying home – and looking forward to it.
“I’m just going to stay in and be warm,” she said.
Raisa Lukin’s Russian is better than her English, but her hat was better than most others at the turkey drive.
Lukin emigrated from Kyrgyzstan to Spokane 19 years ago, so her English is pretty good. Good enough to bashfully laugh off most questions. Her friend next to her – also sporting a plastic slicker as snow protection – spoke only Russian but somehow understood what Lukin was being asked.
Asked her plans for Thursday, Lukin’s head tilted and brow furrowed. Her friend interjected – in Russian.
“With friends,” Lukin said, suddenly understanding. “My children, I have six. They are all married.”
Myron Fuller, 93, was a technician in a field hospital 6 miles from Berlin following World War II. Before the war, he graduated from Coeur d’Alene High School and attended the University of Idaho. Since the war, he’s flipped houses and broken in engines on new cars.
But his most rewarding job was managing apartment houses.
That’s how he met his three adopted daughters. He put all his savings and military pension into a trust fund for their education, and now they all have doctorates: two in education, and the third works for the state Department of Health.
“I enjoy life even though I don’t have much,” said Fuller, who lives in Hillyard.
Since 2004, Fuller has been the antique machinery superintendent for the Spokane County Interstate Fair.
“There isn’t much in this town I don’t know about,” he said, smiling. “I don’t stop.”
Before Ken Conklin chased Jason Senter off with some fatherly punching in the arm, the two said they weren’t related.
“Might as well be,” said Senter, 38, about Conklin, 72.
But the conversation didn’t stay quite so jovial.
“I lost my job and I’m broke,” said Senter, who worked as a forklift driver and is currently papering the town with his resume. “What are you gonna do?”
Tivonia Newton’s little 9-month-old dog shivered in the cold.
“You’re not cold,” Newton gently scolded, remarking that her dog, Cleo, was swaddled in her jacket and surely warm.
Newton, 24, was heading to her mother’s for Thanksgiving, and saving the free meal – banking the goodwill for later holidays.
Her friends, Jasmine Swenson, 21, and Emily Swenson, 41, didn’t have another plan for Thursday.
“Right now, yes, we need it,” she said. “I’m out of a job.”
Emily Swenson lost her job at Wal-Mart at the end of October, and was in the midst of trying to pick up temporary holiday work at one of the other big stores: K-Mart, ShopKo or Target.
“I’ve done a lot of applications,” she said.
Hope Erickson has little of her namesake left.
Between home and the Arena, she and her daughter lost their vouchers for free milk and the toys being handed out. The line was long and a bit unruly. Volunteers were busy. So here they stood, tears in their eyes, unsure if they would walk out with what they came for.
Hope, 53, has been on disability for eight years and subsists on $117 a month in food vouchers. For the past week, the family’s cooked on their barbecue and kept warm by a fireplace.
“We need all the help we can get,” said Hope, crying. “We don’t know where to go from here. We don’t know where to go.”
Her daughter, Miranda, has a 2-year-old son with special needs. Miranda’s boyfriend also lives with them.
“He’s been hitting the pavement every day, and I’m very proud of him,” Hope said. “But we have nothing.”
Lead photo credit: After receiving his turkey and meal fixings, Chris O’Grady waits for his ride to take him home from the Spokane Arena, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)