Thanksgiving often brings about the best in a lot of folks, as they pause to recognize all they have been given, many also turn to help those who have been given much less.
Thanksgiving Dinners from organizations all over the City and in surrounding cities are very common, but none rival the corporate/human services partnership that plays out every Thanksgiving Day on Chestnut Street at the Chelsea Salvation Army facility.
Each year, the Salvation Army and the Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain combine efforts to provide 400 high-quality meals for local people who have hit tough times. The meals are the highest quality turkey and side dishes and even come with a heaping helping of the chain’s famous Pumpkin Cheesecake.
“For a lot of people, when they struggle financially and or maybe could afford a meal but are struggling emotionally or even people whose family situation is a struggle, this brings them some sense of community,” said Armida Harper, a captain in the local Salvation Army. “Because it’s done in so much of a high-quality way, it doesn’t feel like so much of a handout. I spoke to a single mother who was signing up for assistance after leaving an abusive relationship and it was the first time she has had to ask for help. I was talking to her and she was crying and didn’t want to ask for help. It was hard for her and her children to face the holiday without somewhere to go outside of their shelter. When she heard about this dinner, it brought her some hope that she and her kids would be able to come out and be here for such an exciting thing…If you come and say we’re going to a Cheesecake Factory dinner, it’s a nice thing to do and exciting for everyone because it’s going to be great food. It’s not just a frozen turkey.”
Added Lt. Michael Harper, co-leader of the Chelsea facility and Armida’s husband, “What’s been inspiring for me to see is the amount of families that have signed up here. We come over here from the Cambridge facility and we had a homeless shelter there. We would always have a Thanksgiving Dinner there and it was mostly homeless people. This is a mix and a lot of families. It’s nice that folks struggling economically are going to get a nice meal by the Cheesecake Factory on Thanksgiving.”
The Chelsea event is part of The Cheesecake Factory’s annual, nationwide Thanksgiving Day Feast, involving more than 3,000 staff volunteers serving holiday meals for more than 6,000 low-income individuals and families from around the country. The Cheesecake Factory’s Thanksgiving Day Feast will be held at Salvation Army locations in 13 cities, including Anaheim, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Ft. Lauderdale, Houston, Long Island, Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
“The Cheesecake Factory really steps up and makes it easy for us,” said Lt. Michael Harper, Armida’s husband and co-leader of the Chelsea facility. “They bring everything for us, from soup to nuts. They also bring their employees to volunteer to help. From what I understand, their employees love to come out on their own time and help us put this together.”
Armida said Thanksgiving season is one of the busiest times of year for the Salvation Army – a time of year that rolls into the Christmas season when Salvation Army Kettle Bell Ringers begin to hit the streets. It’s also a time when people in need are the neediest as winter utility bills begin to pile up and families begin to struggle.
“We have a lot of work this time of year to do and I don’t know if we could afford to put on a meal this big,” she said.
Michael said the company is really putting their money where their mouth is to help the poor and less fortunate.
“Having these partners is not so much helpful as it is essential,” he said. “The Salvation Army has always been willing to add a little water to the soup to help as many people, but to have someone like this stand up and provide such a high-quality meal is essential.”
Added Armida, “We honestly couldn’t, very bluntly, do what we do for all these people right around us here in Chelsea if we didn’t have companies, individual helpers and the service clubs. They really hold up or arms so we don’t have to turn anyone away.”
The couple has been leading the Chelsea Salvation Army since last August when former leader Capt. Scott Peabody and his wife were assigned to work in western Massachusetts.
Armida was born into a Salvation Army family in New York City, with her mother and father dedicating their work to the homeless there. She grew up with a love for such work, and after graduating from college with a social work degree, she decided the perfect venue to use that degree was in the Salvation Army.
Her ministry took her to Africa, where she was the leader of Salvation Army operations for the entire country of Kenya.
At the same time, Michael was rummaging around in the dump.
Yes, the dump.
He said the dump in Nashua, NH had a place for books that were in good condition and he was there looking for reading material. The book was called ‘The General Next to God,’ and was about the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth.
“I actually got the book because I thought it was about a general in the Civil War, but it turned out to be about William Booth and his founding of the Salvation Army in London in the 1860s,” he said. “It literally changed my life. After reading it, I felt if the organization was anything like what Booth founded, it was something I wanted to be a part of.”
He officially joined in 2002, and wrote a short story about it for the worldwide Salvation Army magazine. A copy of that magazine went out to Kenya, and Armida happened to read about it and was blown away.
“I was still single and reached out to him to comment on his story,” she said. “We kept in touch and two years later we were dating and then were married.”
Added Michael, “I like to say finding that book saved my life and found my wife.”
Both of them are very excited about the Cheesecake Factory Thanksgiving Dinner next week, and they’re also excited for the future of their time here in Chelsea.
“We really see this building as a place that can be a beacon of light,” said Michael. “Chelsea is very diverse and there are a lot of hurting people right her in our immediate vicinity.”
Lt. Michael Harper and Capt. Armida Harper, new leaders of the Salvation Army facility in Chelsea, are excited to host another year of the facility’s collaborative dinner with the Cheesecake Factory restaurants. The chain annually brings in a full dinner and volunteers on Thanksgiving for a “soup to nuts” dinner.