For the past four years, Paul Armstrong, 21, of Melvindale, has risen early Thanksgiving Day to serve turkey dinner to the homeless from 7 to 11 a.m. at Manna House soup kitchen in Detroit.
“A lot of people complain about waking up early in the morning, and all that, but ... by the time you get here, all the drowsiness goes away,” he said from his post at the kitchen this past Thursday. “Just the joy of seeing a smile on someone’s face, even when you just give them a drink of water—it’s priceless—it beats sleeping in totally.”
What started out as a social activity with the Dearborn Sacred Heart Parish youth group has turned into an annual Thanksgiving tradition for him and his 19-year-old brother, Mike.
“I’m helping out people that can’t get a decent meal most of the time,” Paul Armstrong said. “And I’m doing the work that Jesus said.
"It really gives me a sense of joy knowing that I’m helping someone to enjoy Thanksgiving as much as I usually would, and to be honest, I actually like this better than having my own Thanksgiving,” he added.
Brother Mike Armstrong agreed.
“You go away with this really warm feeling,” he said. “And you know that (this) is what Thanksgiving is about.”
Manna House, located at Michigan and Trumbull in the basement of St. Peter Episcopal Church in Detroit, began in 1976, with Father Tom Lumpkin, co-manager of the soup kitchen, arriving two years later.
Lumpkin said volunteers from St. Linus Parish in Dearborn Heights have been preparing and serving Thanksgiving dinner for the soup kitchen every year since it began. Sacred Heart became involved almost 10 years ago when former St. Linus member Julie Wieleba-Milkie, a 20-year attendee, became Sacred Heart’s director of faith formation and youth ministry.
Lumpkin said the Thanksgiving meal is very special to their recipients, who usually dine on soup, sandwiches and day-old doughnuts. It's special to the volunteers, too.
“Instead of going down to the parade, they can come and do this in the morning," he said. "It gives them a way of celebrating Thanksgiving that is appropriate for them, that they want to do, then they can go back and have their own dinner and stuff with their family and friends, so it kind of—it’s just a good day for them ... it’s a good way to celebrate Thanksgiving.”
The teen and adult volunteers have mixed reactions to the homeless population Manna House serves, Lumpkin said.
“Some ... can get turned off by seeing very poor people,” Lumpkin said. “A big chunk of the homeless population has mental illness; (the volunteers) can sort of be frightened by that ... they are definitely venturing out of a comfort zone to come down here.”
Wieleba-Milkie sees the value of bringing teen volunteers from her youth group at Sacred Heart to help serve the Thanksgiving meal in at Manna House.
“To wake up early on a Thanksgiving morning, on a holiday, instead of being able to stay in your jamies and watch the parade, I hope they get a sense of what it really means to be thankful this Thanksgiving Day,” Wieleba-Milkie said. “To give thanks for the fact that they have a roof over their heads, that they have a home, that they have a meal that they can go home to, because of a lot of these people—even though they might have jobs—(might not have) enough income to be able to actually maintain a home.”
Abigail Burke, 13, of Dearborn and an eighth grader at Sacred Heart School, has been coming to Manna House on Thanksgiving morning for five years.
“I just like coming down here because I like serving the poor and homeless,” Burke said. It makes me feel better – showing that I’ve done something… giving them a better Thanksgiving.”
Emma Andrus, 13, an eighth grader at Sacred Heart School and a Dearborn Heights resident, has also been coming to Manna House for five Thanksgivings.
“There are other people besides me that should be fed today,” Andrus said. “I come here over again because other people also need a good meal on Thanksgiving ... and every single time I walk out I always feel good about helping others.”
Les Osenkowski, St. Linus parish member and a 30-year Thanksgiving volunteer, continues even after moving to Northville.
“I’m rewarded to see all these beautiful people get a satisfying meal out of this,” he said.
St. Linus Deacon Jerry Schiffer, director of Christian service, said this has become a Thanksgiving tradition for many families in the parish.
“Some people will go down to the football game today; some people go to the parade—those are great things,” Schiffer said. “We’re blessed to be able to see these people as our guests, people who are in need, and to have an opportunity to serve them ... it’s an opportunity for us to live our faith by helping others.”