City Mission extends Thanksgiving celebration

For the first time, the City Mission is extending its Thanksgiving to a weeklong celebration of hope

After a devistating fire in 2015, the Washington City Mission has not only rebuilt, but expanded.

The team at the Washington City Mission looks forward to expanding their community offerings for Thanksgiving in their new West Wheeling Street facilities. Photo:Mark Marietta/Observer-Reporter
The team at the Washington City Mission looks forward to expanding their community offerings for Thanksgiving in their new West Wheeling Street facilities. Photo:Mark Marietta/Observer-Reporter
The team at the Washington City Mission looks forward to expanding their community offerings for Thanksgiving in their new West Wheeling Street facilities. Photo:Mark Marietta/Observer-Reporter

For 76 years on Thanksgiving Day, the Washington City Mission has welcomed those who might have nowhere to go for a holiday dinner with all the trimmings.

This year, the mission is expanding its Thanksgiving celebration into a week long event to afford more Washington County residents the opportunity to sit down and enjoy an exceptional holiday dining experience.

The festivities, which will include lunch and dinner served from Saturday, Nov. 18, through Saturday, Nov. 25, also will enable more volunteers to roll up their sleeves and help cook, serve and deliver meals.

For the first time, the mission will deliver Boxes of Love to families in need. Every box will contain a turkey or ham, along with vegetables, stuffing, pie and other items to prepare a Thanksgiving meal at home.

Washington City Mission food service manager Judy Sandy checks on a sample turkey prepared by the Mission’s chef in their new kitchen. 
Mark Marietta/Observer-Reporter

“Instead of one meal on Thanksgiving, we’re going to have a week of Thanksgiving. It will not only expand our ability to serve the community, but it also will provide an opportunity for more volunteers to participate,” says Brian Johansson, chief operating officer of the Mission, who served at the Bowery Mission in New York City for 20 years before arriving at the City Mission in January. “A lot of folks want to volunteer at this time of year, but aren’t able to because of holiday travel or the limited number of volunteers needed on Thanksgiving Day, so this will enable more volunteers to help out. We want that Thanksgiving feeling for a whole week, as opposed to just one day.”

The mission – which has 300 active volunteers who work at donation centers and help with events, including Sweet Sunday – ministers to more than 600 men, women and children every year with shelter, food and rehabilitation services. Last year, it served more than 113,000 meals and distributed more than 2,500 food bags.

The annual Thanksgiving banquet, however, is an enormous undertaking that requires the efforts of staff and volunteers who work for months to provide a gourmet meal.

The sit-down meals will be served by volunteers. Johansson says local schools will be enlisted to help decorate the kitchen, and music will be provided.

Concurrently, volunteers will deliver meals to group homes and shut-ins, and shuttle to the Mission people who want to attend the dinner but don’t have transportation.

The mission’s culinary team is gearing up for the extended holiday celebration.

Says Judy Sandy, manager of food service, “Normally, on Thanksgiving Day we have about 25 volunteers serving the meal. This is the first year of us doing a week-long event, and a project this extensive is going to require a lot more prep and a lot more people. But it always comes together. Nobody ever knows the behind-the-scenes hustle and bustle, and that’s good. They come in and enjoy a dinner and have a smile on their faces, and that’s what we want.”

Dr. Sally Mounts, the Mission’s director of development, says Thanksgiving is an important time at the mission because a good meal can open the door to long-term healing.

“We’re really big on gratitude here. A big portion of that is, we give thanks in all things, for anything that’s happened in our lives,” Mounts says. “At Thanksgiving, we say, ‘Hey, we’re going to give you a wonderful Thanksgiving meal, and for the time you’re here, this is going to be like home.’ Because one of the things we find is when people are hungry and homeless and you give them a really good meal, their feelings about things start to change. They start to become more hopeful. There’s more of a sense good things are happening in their lives. The first meal is a first step toward a larger sense of hope, and that larger sense of hope, if it develops into momentum, can develop into something that transforms a life.”

Curtis Rose, Edward Carter, and Jay Parker help prepare the Mission’s new dining room for the next meal. 
Mark Marietta/Observer-Reporter

For the second year, the Thanksgiving dinner will be served in the large kitchen housed in the building at 84 W. Wheeling St., which underwent a $2.9 million renovation following a kitchen fire in June 2015 that caused extensive damage.

The former dining room was limited to seating for 45 people; there is space in the new dining room for 150 people.

“The fire really did connect the community to us in a much deeper and broader way,” says Dean Gartland, CEO of the Mission. “When the fire happened, people who have never probably contributed to the City Mission pitched in. The fire put us on the radar with the larger community, even in Pittsburgh and the Allegheny County area. Churches, businesses and organizations stepped forward to help us continue our services and to rebuild.”

Mounts says the extended celebration will “celebrate God’s goodness all week.”

“We’re striving to make Thanksgiving even more important,” says Mounts. “We want to be a mission where everybody believes in and speaks out for gratitude, and that everything that happens in life is in some way part of a plan that can work together for good. And a good meal is just the first step in all of that.”