FOR many, the holiday season's greatest expression of thanks is in the giving. Carving hundreds of turkeys, chopping mountains of vegetables, visiting isolated elderly people: These are just a few of the ways many volunteers spend their Thanksgiving - providing others with a reason to be grateful.
The holiday season gives the ``have's'' an opportunity to give a little something to the ``have not's,'' says the Rev. Cecil Williams of the Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, which provides homeless and hungry people in the Bay Area three meals a day, seven days a week. On Thanksgiving Day Mr. Williams expects to open his doors to more than 8,000 people.
This church is only one of many organizations offering special help this holiday season. In March 1983, Congress established the Emergency Food and Shelter National Board Program (EFSP) to give grants to groups helping the hungry and the homeless. It began with a $50 million fund, and gave money to 3,000 organizations. In 1990, EFSP expects to distribute $124.9 million among 9,500 organizations, including Glide Memorial.
Providing a meal is only part of what these groups do. ``What really matters,'' says Mr. Williams, ``is for us to be with people who don't have what we have.''
Melissa Thomson, a Boston lawyer, says companionship is the best gift. Ms. Thomson volunteers for Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly - a worldwide organization that, among other things, arranges for volunteers to bring holiday meals to the homes of senior citizens who live alone. ``Visiting and having someone there is what is important,'' she says. ``The meal is really secondary.''
Confronted daily with the problem of homelessness on the streets of Atlanta, Dudley Chandlen continually fought an internal struggle. ``You don't know if you are helping or hurting when you give them money,'' says Mr. Chandlen, who now volunteers at a shelter staffed by the All Saints Episcopal Church in Atlanta.
A call to the local United Way chapter helped settle Chandlen's quandary. He became a volunteer because it gave him a chance to help in a ``constructive and positive'' way, he says.
Barry Lass, who works in the Boston municipal court system, also wanted to help. ``I didn't have any money to give, but I had plenty of time and effort to offer,'' he says. Mr. Lass spends many holiday hours working for Little Brothers. ``This filled a need in my life, providing a family atmosphere,'' he says. ``I've made a lot of new friends, both with those I'm helping and with the people I work with.''
Wiley Cooper, secretariat of EFSP, says a rush of volunteers at the holiday season invariably occurs, but ``we never have enough people to do the jobs that need to be done.'' He says volunteers are also greatly needed to donate skills year-round - services ranging from fund raising to dentistry.
The Glide Memorial Church will be leaning heavily on volunteers this Thanksgiving. To man their mega-meal, the church needs more than 600 volunteers. About 300 have signed up so far. Williams says that there are always enough workers (and work), but some volunteers just show up on the day of the event. If an abundance of volunteers sign up, the extras become ``Santa's helpers'' and get a jump on Christmas with gift wrapping.
Williams explains that parents will often bring their children to help, and the volunteering becomes a family event. The parents want their children to experience helping those less well off, and want to give them a better appreciation of what they have, he says.
Robertson often hears this sentiment: ``I see that a lot of people are not as well off as I am; I've been very fortunate.''
While stressing his gratitude for the holiday volunteer work, Cooper makes a request. ``Rather than a one-shot for the holidays,'' he says, ``I would love to see people adopt a family or program for a whole year.''
To volunteer, contact community voluntary action centers, local churches, or national organizations such as the United Way, the Salvation Army, or the Goodwill.