BRADENTON -- "Hey, John! Happy Thanksgiving!"
Sarah Thomas' words to Our Daily bread employee John Green vibrated with warmth Sunday morning as she joined an estimated 400 or so others in line for the annual community Thanksgiving meal at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Bill Galvano One Stop Center, 701 17th Ave. W.
Sunday was a special day for Manatee County's homeless and needy, a community Thomas belongs to herself.
Traditionally, Our Daily Bread serves its Thanksgiving feast, one of its largest meals of the year, the Saturday before the holiday, but kitchen manager Penny Goethe made the switch because she had personal business on the usual date.
"We'll probably go back to Saturday next year," Goethe said.
Our Daily Bread usually serves roughly 300 people a day, so the special meal demanded extra help. Goethe and Green and a handful of
Our Daily Bread employees got the job done, along with a dozen or more special community volunteers and volunteers from Kirkland Presbyterian Church, led by Robbin West.
Together, they fed the crowd efficiently allowing about 50 to eat at a time.
"We serve a traditional Thanksgiving dinner," Goethe said.
"Very good," said diner Wesley Thomas, munching on a roll.
The dinner consisted of 35 turkeys, 30 pies, 18 boxes of instant mashed potatoes, four big cans of cranberry sauce, two big cans of applesauce, four cases of green beans and three cases of sweet potatoes along with countless rolls and plentiful ice tea.
But the issue of caring for the homeless goes far beyond a big holiday meal. These at the meal represented a good percentage of the homeless community, said John Green, and he should know.
'It ain't no fun'
Over the past six years, Green has done everything at Our Daily Bread from handing out food to washing trays and he has gotten to know most of the area homeless by name or face.
And they have gotten to know Green, whose big smile and upbeat attitude derives from an interesting personal history as a former Manatee Junior College basketball player in the early 1970s. Green was so talented future National Basketball Association Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo once said he would play in the pros.
Many Our Daily Bread visitors say Green is one of the key aspects of a visit there other than the food. Green was at the top of his game Sunday, shaking hands, smiling and passing out holiday greetings.
Green said the homeless love him because he treats them with respect. Many hugged him Sunday and called out: "Hey, Big John!"
"I've been in their shoes," said Green, who will be 62 on July 31. "I've been there. It ain't no fun. You wake up in a place you don't want to be. It's cold. I like to have my own space. I guess that is why I do for them before I do for myself."
Life seemed promising for Green after graduating from Manatee High School in 1970. He was a small forward on the Manatee Junior College basketball team, which is now State College of Florida.
"I played against Bob McAdoo when we were both in college," Green says with a grin, referring to a game between Manatee Junior College and Vincennes Junior College. "He scored 39 against me. I scored 18. I remember him laughing as he went down the court after making a three. It was so easy for him. He said to me after the game: 'See you in the pros.' He made it. I didn't."
McAdoo, 62, now a Miami Heat assistant coach, played 14 years in the NBA and scored 18,787 points.
Green chides himself for not staying in school, getting a degree and a higher-paying job.
"Stay in school, stay in school," Green said when asked to share the wisdom he has learned in life.
"I love my job, can't complain, but it's not high-paying," Green said. "School is everything."
Over more than 40 years, Green has worked for the Bradenton Sanitation Department, All Can Windows and Doors and Tropicana.
Always on edge
But Green said he always was on the edge financially and six years ago came to Our Daily Bread out of work and homeless. The organization put him to work and now he rents an apartment from them right across the street.
"Every morning, I ask the Lord to keep me humble," Green said.
Green said he is praying he can retire soon. His retirement plans are not what one would expect.
"I want to stay home and watch Jerry Springer," Green said.
Green loves Springer, whom he has never met. If he could meet his hero he said he said he would shake his hand and say: "Jerry, Jerry, Jerry."
"I like the comments people make on the show," Green said. "I like laughing. Laughing keeps you from crying."
Sarah Thomas, 30, slept Saturday night "down at Riverwalk on one of the big pillars near the Skatepark."
Although Thomas has a part-time job at Walmart as a stocker, she doesn't have enough money for an apartment for her two girls, Zaniah, 5, and Zamirah, 2. They live with Thomas' mother, Candy Statkus, in Palmetto.
"I made bad choices," Thomas said when asked why she can't live with at her mother's house. "I'm working my way back."
She said she is a recovering addict. Asked what it is like to be without her children, tears well up. She has a hard time getting the words out but finally said: "It's an indescribable feeling."
She is estranged from her husband, she said.
Here's how Thomas lives: She eats lunch from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. every day at Our Daily Bread and dinner from 5 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. every night at The Salvation Army on 14th Street W.
She grabs a shower at One Stop Center if she can and they do her laundry, which she can pick up a day after handing it in inside a big plastic bag. They also provide her with a mail box.
"Sometimes I wash up in a public restroom," Thomas said.
As for sleeping outside, she said: "I wake up extremely stiff."
No health care
Thomas said her uterus should be surgically removed, and she has been to the emergency room several times in the last few months. She doesn't have money for a hysterectomy, she said. She did have Medicare, but lost it when she gave her children up, she said.
Our Daily Bread and The Salvation Army anchor her life now.
"Those two places mean the world to me," Thomas said. "On a day I am not able to get to them, like if I am working, I don't eat."
Asked what Manatee County and city of Bradenton could do to help the homeless, Thomas thought about it.
"A designated place where we could go and sleep for free would be good," she said.
Derick Murray and Rebecca Freeman, unmarried but together for 11 years, are a homeless couple with six children who are not with them.
"We made poor choices," Freeman said.
Drugs and alcohol were among those poor choices, the couple said.
"Drugs numb the pain for people who are homeless," Freeman said. "I think the answer is that homeless people have to substitute motels for drugs."
A secret place
The couple sat on a bench waiting for Thanksgiving dinner as Murray lovingly stroked Freeman's hair. Murray works for Day Labor in Bradenton. Freeman is unemployed.
They sleep each night on a roof on a building in downtown Bradenton.
"It's our secret place," Freeman said. "We crawl through pipes to get there. We have a mattress. We use our clothes wrapped up for a pillow and we have a blanket."
"I like to watch the moon move across the sky," Murray said of their rooftop bed. "It's like sleeping in the Bishop Planetarium, but it's free."
"The stars are really pretty," Freeman said.
Sunday is a special day, they said. Each Sunday morning they take the trolley out to Coquina Beach where they panhandle for $47.
"That's what it costs for Kentucky Colonel motel on 14th Street West," Murray said. "We get to watch 'The Walking Dead' on TV and take a shower to get ready for Monday."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or via Twitter @ RichardDymond.