Volunteers serve Thanksgiving lunch at Camillus House
For Jazmine Cedeno and her father, Jose Cedeno, Thanksgiving is about tradition. And for the last five years their tradition has included volunteering together, serving a Thanksgiving meal to Miami’s homeless.
Jose Cedeno brought his daughter with him to volunteer for the first time when she was 14. “I just brought her so she could see and appreciate a little more,” Cedeno said.
“The first time I did it, it was life changing,” said Jazmine Cedeno, now 19 and a frequent volunteer. “I definitely appreciate more. I’m more grateful.”
On this Thanksgiving morning, the Cedenos were part of a group of more than 90 volunteers at Camillus House, a shelter that offers support for the homeless in downtown Miami. This year, volunteers served 408 plates, piled high with turkey, stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, and candied yams. Slices of apple pie and pumpkin pie finished the meal.
The event is so popular that each year Camillus House has to turn away volunteers hoping to celebrate the holiday by giving back to their community. There just isn’t enough space for them all, said Sam Gil, operations organizer for Camillus.
“They’ve been calling probably since about July,” Gil said. “Honestly, if we would have more room we would probably have 200 volunteers.”
But the event isn’t just popular for volunteers. It serves a real purpose for an often forgotten and underserved part of the Miami community.
“I always come to Camillus House on Thanksgiving,” said Eugene White, bobbing his head to music played by a local DJ. “It’s the biggest thing in Miami for homeless people on Thanksgiving.”
Every year for the last 58 years, Camillus House has served a Thanksgiving meal. Over time the event has become a sort of block party with hundreds of people. Before the meal was served Thursday, a group of people danced in the courtyard to music played over a sound system. DJ Warren, an alumnus of the shelter’s drug rehabilitation program, volunteers for the event every year.
“I come back to give back because they saved my life,” he said. “I was lost for a lot of years.” Now, thanks to Camillus House, he said he’s been clean for 10 years.
Before the Thanksgiving meal, dozens of people lined up to shower and get a free haircut from a group of four volunteer barbers brought together by Francesca Rinaldi, whose family owns Southland Barber Shop.
“A haircut is a change,” Rinaldi said. “Since I started cutting hair I have always taken care of the homeless.” She estimated they gave at least 35 haircuts Thanksgiving morning before packing up and heading back to their own families.
Mealtime was organized chaos.
Starting around 10:30 a.m., hundreds of diners waited in line to eat. They entered in shifts to take seats at the 25 tables, covered in burnt orange tablecloths and decorative centerpieces.
Volunteers in matching black shirts, hairnets, and plastic gloves wove between the tables, seating people, serving food, cleaning the tables, then repeating the process for the next round of 125 people. The youngest volunteers — children around age 5 — made holiday decorations in the corner.
The Camillus House choir opened the meal by singing “Amazing Grace.” The loudest and most festive of the group of six was Cathedral Beauford, 56, who wore a headband featuring a turkey with bright yellow and orange feathers.
“I love to give. I volunteer. I sing in the choir,” said Beauford, homeless since 1978. Her own struggle doesn’t keep her from trying to help others. “It’s nice to be here and see everyone’s smiles.”
Tony Williams, 51, and Herman Deveaux, 59, sat at a table in the front row. Both are residents at Camillus House while they work on finding permanent housing.
“I am thankful,” said Deveaux, who has been at the shelter just under four months. “No matter what happens in our lives, there’s always something to be thankful for.”
Williams, who is disabled and cannot work, had been living under a nearby bridge with dozens of other homeless people until about a month ago when city officials removed them all, declaring the area a sanitary nuisance. Williams ended up at Camillus House while he waits for his hearing.
“I want to thank Camillus House,” he said. Then he dug into his turkey and stuffing, and said, “The food tastes great.”
While the mood was generally festive, hardship was evident in many faces around the room.
Sergio Rovelli, 62, has been homeless since having a stroke a year ago. He has not been able to get a bed at Camillus House, which everyone says is very popular and difficult to get into. “I’m sleeping at a bus stop,” he said. But, he said with the genuine smile of someone who doesn’t give up easily, “Everyone here has stories.”
Camillus House resident Frankevia Williams, 23, sat quietly at a table, staring at her food. She had been living at the shelter since July after she said she witnessed her cousin get killed. The assailant then threatened her too, forcing her out of her home and her life.
Williams has a 3-year-old daughter, Jasmine. Now, Jasmine is in foster care while her young mother works on getting a better job and an apartment for both of them. They see each other once every two weeks.
“When it comes time for me to go and I tell her she can’t come with me, she cries,” Williams said. For her, Jasmine is both a motivation to work hard and an open wound that makes getting back on her feet even more difficult.
“It’s like every day I can’t not think about her,” Williams said. “When I’m at work, I think about her. When I’m not at work, I think about her.”