It’s the time of year when friends, co-workers, or fellow parishioners ask each other: “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”
For many, the answer involves gatherings with family and friends at their own home or traveling to a friend’s or family member’s. But at the Samaritan House, Thanksgiving involves pulling together a community of hundreds to share a day of gratitude.
On Thanksgiving Day, some 500 men, women and children experiencing homelessness will visit the Catholic Charities Samaritan House and receive a meal prepared by the Westin Denver Downtown staff. Each person who goes through the meal line will not only be offered a broad selection of holiday dishes, but also receive outreach provided by a team of staff and volunteers.
“I think a lot of people when they want to volunteer, on a holiday especially, they imagine a five-mile long dinner line with people on one side who are needy with empty plates and then on the other side are all these volunteer opportunities to dish out food. And I don’t really know of anything like that at all in Denver, but especially here that’s just not the case,” said Anna Maestas, director of volunteering at Samaritan House. “It’s a home, and we try to preserve the feeling of it being a home for our residents.”
In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, residents can write what they’re grateful for on paper leaves, which are then attached to a tree that serves as a holiday decoration. Case managers stand ready to assist, and repeat volunteers who have developed relationships with residents sometimes join attendees at the table. The Thanksgiving lunch offers a chance for ministry and promotes the culture of love and service that Samaritan House tries to offer.
For Kyle Dyer, a former longtime 9News anchor, volunteering at Samaritan House for Thanksgiving has become a family tradition, one that’s made a big impact on her and her family.
“I thought it would be sad, but I don’t feel sadness at all when I go,” Dyer said. “I feel a lot that everyone who comes through the line is so thankful, and I think that’s really great for my kids to see. Yes, these people need a permanent home, but for that day we can offer compassion and that compassion brings them hope.”
Brian Wheeler, a Kentucky-native who moved to Denver with his then-girlfriend, found himself without a home and no other options. He discovered Samaritan House four months ago by searching the internet for where to go in Denver to seek help, and says he’s already felt profound changes in his life.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” Wheeler said. “I’ve been able to get my life back on track as far as resources and spirituality. My faith has definitely been renewed in different ways and opportunities. I just feel so blessed to have run across it.”
He grew up Catholic and attended a Catholic high school, but lost his faith in college. Through encounters at Samaritan House he was able to rediscover his faith, which has made a big difference in his life.
“I was dealt some health issues and was forced to really turn to Jesus because I wasn’t in control of the situation, and I wanted to control it so badly, but couldn’t,” he said. “I finally had to realize that God is in control and is leading this chapter of my life.”
Wheeler plans on attending the Thanksgiving meal this year but also sees the effects and blessings of Samaritan House far beyond any single day.
“I just think that for people who were in the situation that I was in, it is such a great resource and tool to have in this city, that these people are here to help. If you really allow [them] and God to work in your life and just take a step back, it’s amazing to see how He really, really personally touches people’s lives here. It’s really amazing to watch,” he said.
Likewise, Dyer has seen the impact Samaritan House has on people who find themselves in difficult situations and face homelessness. Having worked on hundreds of stories in her career as a journalist, she has encountered different organizations that serve those who are homeless but found something distinctive at Samaritan House.
“There is something about Samaritan House. There are other places that families can go, but once they get to Samaritan House, something changes,” Dyer said. “They have someone who believes in them. They are where they need to be to get where they want to go.”
With the holidays approaching and as people thoughtfully consider how they can give back to those in need this season, Maestas offered an encouragement.
“It is so beautiful to want to give back on the day we are supposed to be really grateful. But if we are truly looking at service the way Jesus did, people need help and people to be reminded of their dignity every single day of the year, and at Samaritan House we have volunteer opportunities every single day of the year.”