Michael Dawkins lost his job more than a year ago and couldn’t pay his bills.
So, he has been staying at local shelters since, alternating between the Oliver Gospel Mission, Transitions and the city’s winter shelter.
Dawkins said he tries to stay strong, despite not having a place of his own or being able to find a job. But he reflected on what he is thankful for – including family and faith – as he joined a community of people in need Thursday for a free Thanksgiving meal at the Carolina Coliseum. It marked the 25th anniversary Thanksgiving Day dinner provided by St. Peter’s Catholic Church and First Baptist Church of Columbia.
Many of the roughly 1,500 guests who ate the Thanksgiving meal were homeless like Dawkins.
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Robert Keeder, the coordinator of the meal, has been helping provide the Thanksgiving feast since 1990, when the first was held on Marion Street and fed 238 guests. Keeder planned to feed more than six times that many people at the Coliseum Thursday and an additional 1,200 meals delivered to those in nursing homes.
Keeder said similar meals are held on Christmas and Easter.
Thursday, a line stretched outside the Assembly Street entrance as guests waited for the traditional Thanksgiving feast. The meal included turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, cranberry sauce, salad and bread. The dessert list was just as long, ranging from pumpkin and sweet potato pie to pound cake and Rice Krispie treats.
The sweet potato pie was the best part of the meal, Dawkins said.
He said he is grateful for the churches and shelters coming together to help provide services. For example, volunteers help people in his situation obtain a birth certificate or Social Security card and they also help wash clothes, he said. He also has gotten free eye glasses.
Others, too, on Thursday got free drugstore reading glasses. Volunteers gave away the glasses, donated by Palmetto Optical Laboratory.
Most people in their early 40s have trouble reading up close, said Dr. Fulton Gasper of Orangeburg Eye Center. Many of people who attended the meal were in that age group, he said.
“It’s just instant improvement,” Fulton said of the glasses. He expected to hand out about 250 pairs of reading glasses on Thursday and another 250 at Christmas.
There were other gifts for Thursday’s diners, too.
A young boy came to the table and handed out small bags of candy. Dawkins and others also had balloon animals that were being handed out. Dawkins’ balloon was a hat shaped like a monkey that he had tied to his ball-cap to secure.
He planned to keep the monkey as he headed over to Finlay Park after eating his Thanksgiving meal. At the park, he passes the time swinging and tries to stay in the sun, he said.
He planned to wait there until Oliver Gospel Mission opened for the evening, where he would later attend devotion.
“You’ve got to have faith in all of it,” he said, as gospel music played throughout the coliseum and hundreds of others ate the meal.
Dawkins, along with Keeder, the meal’s organizer, were thankful for the same thing – being alive.