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Free yams for soldiers in Texas and a lollipop drive in Tennessee

By Sara B. MillerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 24, 2004

In Chicago, a group of friends cooked a Thanksgiving feast for America's newest pilgrims: 150 Somali refugees who'd never tasted cornbread stuffing or cranberry sauce.

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In Symmes Township, Ohio, kindergartners have been turning their daily grind - making beds, setting dinner tables, and bumping trash bags along the driveway - into a pool of "chore" money to buy 735 pounds of nonperishables for a local food bank.

In New Jersey, a prosecutor's office is collecting yams and brownies for crime victims, "to let them know we're thinking about them," says Elaine O'Neal, who runs the Thanksgiving program at the Union County Prosecutor's Office.

Across the country, Americans are giving in ways as familiar as Uncle Henry's stuffing and as dependable as the after-dinner mess - but with plenty of new twists, too.

There are any number of Salvation Army turkey roasts to feed the homeless, and the usual "turkey trot" races, with townies in spandex working up appetites as they raise money for the needy. But there's also Michael Weist, the Tennessee second-grader who's collecting over 600 lollipops - with headquarters at his aunt's beauty salon - for children at a local hospital whose treatments irritate their throats.

In many ways, it's been a challenging winter in a land of plenty, with world events - the war in Iraq, a lingering sense of 9/11 vulnerability, and an ongoing terrorist threat - adding to the angst of a tense election and the devastation of the Southeast by a quartet of hurricanes. And some say that's renewed a philanthropic impulse even in areas of the country suffering from donor fatigue.

Still, say experts on giving, America has always been an exceptionally generous country - one with "an underlying disposition of people who care," says Paul Schervish, director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College. And that's particularly true during the holidays, with "the softening of the heart of that Christmas and Thanksgiving spirit." But beyond simple awareness of the needy, outreach and Thanksgiving go together like, well, mashed potatoes and gravy.

Outside Dallas, a combination of that Thanksgiving impulse and the toll of war in Iraq have spurred the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center to serve some 300 servicemen and women, many on their way to Iraq or coming home.

The program, dubbed "We've Got Your Back," came about when a radio host in Dallas received a letter from his son in Iraq. Thinking that the missive could be his last letter home, the soldier remembered how his father supported him when he was growing up - and promised to do the same for his father in spirit, should he himself be killed.

That touched the community so deeply that the resort - six minutes from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport - is preparing a Thanksgiving feast for servicemen and women passing through the airport on Thursday.

"We get so wrapped up in our day-to-day lives, we forget how much work they are doing for us," says Ty Thoren, executive chef at the resort. "But they have been suffering for so long. We had to do something."

Most Americans imagine the first Thanksgiving as a feast spread out on Plymouth Rock in 1621, born of the Puritans' gratitude for native Americans' advice on planting crops after a rough and deadly winter. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed November's fourth Thursday a national holiday in 1863 as a way to honor those early settlers and celebrate opportunity in a fledgling nation. But in four centuries, the menu of cranberry sauce and roast turkey has morphed to include everything from chipotle biscuits to meatless Tofurky with low-carb stuffing.

When Grace Masi and her friend Dorothy Riley decided to welcome new African immigrants in Chicago, they had to make some adjustments. They ate right at sundown, since their dinner fell during Ramadan with its requisite all-day fasts. And the real celebration came after the feast, when most Americans are washing dishes and loosening belts.