This man will serve 2,000 free meals for Thanksgiving

Rodney O’Neill is carrying on a 40-plus-year tradition in Olympia, Wash., that was started by his mother. He, and more than 600 volunteers, also serve meals at Christmas and Easter.

Gail Wood
Rodney O’Neill holds a newspaper feature about his mother, Barb O’Neill, who started offering free holiday meals in the 1970s.

The smiles, the full tummies, they’ve become a holiday tradition here.

Thanks to Barb O’Neill, a caring woman, and thanks to her son, Rodney O’Neill, who has always said, “What can I do?,” when he sees someone in need. And thanks to 600-plus volunteers who spread some holiday cheer.

Because of them, more than 4,200 people will get a free meal this year at a church in downtown Olympia, Wash. The meals are served at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, which continues a helping-hand tradition that has now gone on for more than 40 years.

The group’s Thanksgiving gathering this year will be Nov. 23 at First United Methodist Church, where about 2,000 people are expected to come for a free meal and some friendly mingling.

“I love it. Everyone loves it,” Mr. O’Neill says. “It’s a success because of all the people involved.”

It all started in the early 1970s, when O’Neill’s mother began inviting people over to her home in Lacey, Wash., for Thanksgiving when she learned they didn’t have much to eat. After a few years, 60 people were coming to her house for the holiday dinner. Eventually, she moved the dinners to local churches, where the gatherings grew some more.

The operation is now a nonprofit, called Barb O’Neill’s Family and Friends. And in addition to the scrumptious holiday meals, the organization provides clothing, food baskets, toys, and other gifts. In the spring, it hands out about 500 Easter baskets, which include books as well as toothbrushes and toothpaste donated by local dentists. At Christmas, volunteers visit homes to give gifts to children.

“It’s amazing,” says Shelly Willis, executive director of Family Education and Support Services, a nonprofit in Olympia whose aim is healthy child development. “It’s a critical community support.”

O’Neill began helping at these meals when he was 6. Over the years, it became clear that Ms. O’Neill was grooming her son to be her successor. She died in 2008, but not before sharing her vision for how the outreach would continue.

“We talked all the time the last three years I was her caregiver,” he says. “We talked all about the organization, about the direction. About everything.”

By 2008, O’Neill was the nonprofit’s executive director, keeping the holiday meals going. He never doubted he could do it.

“It’s important this continues because a lot of people have learned to rely on this as a tradition,” he says. “Not just for the people who are receiving the resources, but also the people who are volunteering and participating.”

‘It’s a blessing for all’

From the start, O’Neill knew he couldn’t pull off these holiday meals by himself. The first need was for a kitchen manager. Rich and Kay Smith, a retired couple in Olympia, have been that key ingredient for the past decade. Still, it’s O’Neill who keeps the tradition going – calling for donations, checking with volunteers, and scheduling dates with churches.

“He puts a lot of thought into following his mom’s legacy, which was about ensuring that families of all economic backgrounds had an opportunity to enjoy the holidays,” Ms. Willis says. “It’s a blessing for all.”

With O’Neill managing the holiday meals project, the number of people being fed has increased from 1,200 a year to the 4,200 tally, which has been in place for several years now.

Willis sends families from her nonprofit to the meals, which include ham, turkey, or roast, depending on the holiday.

“Without Rodney, there’s no other formal way for families to get those holiday meals,” she says. “There are certainly homeless meals offered, but there’s no holiday atmosphere without Rodney’s provision of services.”

Frances Erickson, a retiree in Olympia, has volunteered at the gatherings. She and her children “were blown away by the love and compassion shown at this event,” she says.

In addition to the volunteers, about 30 local businesses are involved, faithfully donating food, toys, and clothes. A local radio station, Mixx 96, coordinates the toy drive.

“One of the most important things about everything we do is building a stronger community,” O’Neill says. He thinks it’s just as important to give people an opportunity to serve as it is to serve those who need help.

‘We’re like family’

Ana Perera and her family have been going to the holiday meals for 25 years, sometimes as volunteers, sometimes just to be with friends.

“My family loves it,” says Ms. Perera, another retiree in Olympia. “We won’t miss it. It’s just a wonderful time to get together and see people we haven’t seen since our last meal. We’re like family.”

Besides putting on the holiday meals, O’Neill also manages a catering service, Barb’s Famous BBQ. But as with his mother, his heart is in helping others. It’s what he learned from her.

“My dream is to one day do charity work full time,” he says.

This past January, O’Neill had a stroke and was temporarily paralyzed on his right side, leaving him unable to move his right hand or walk. He’s regained use of his hand, but is still using a wheelchair. Yet he keeps coordinating the events.

“A stroke is not a fun thing,” O’Neill says. “But I can’t stop. I have to continue to do this. I love it.”

In her last days, Ms. O’Neill shared one more important ingredient to running a successful meals program.

“She said if you lead by faith, it will work out,” Mr. O’Neill says. “My mom was a true believer of faith in prayer, faith in God.”

He notes that at times he had asked her, “Why aren’t you planning this? Why aren’t you making phone calls?” Her reply: “You have to have a different kind of faith.”

“When that light went on and I understood that, it changed my life,” he says.

And now O’Neill changes the holidays three times a year for many people in his community.

How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups that, among other things, help feed children:

Achungo Children’s Centre gives food, clothing, education, and medical aid to more than 200 orphans and other children in rural Kenya. Take action: Help provide food for the center’s youths.

Operation USA aids children and families in the wake of natural disasters and other challenges. Take action: Support nutrition programs at a school in Haiti.

American Foundation for Children With AIDS provides services in underserved and marginalized communities in Africa. Take action: Contribute money to a sustainable food project for these children.

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