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West Side Thanksgiving feast attracts a crowd (with video)

Kenny Kemp
A host of volunteers served out more than 300 dinners at Tuesday night's 6th Annual Earl Wilson Community Dinner.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- By 5 p.m. Tuesday, more than 50 people were lined up outside the door to the Tiskelwah Center on Florida Street and the doors weren't even supposed to open for another hour.

By 7 p.m., Dural Miller, a founder of the Earl Wilson Community Thanksgiving Dinner delivered the news to a packed room. After a crew of volunteers had served upwards of 300 people dinner, he announced: "The turkey's gone!"

There was always dessert.

"It's a blessing," said Miller, taking a moment's break from the action in a storeroom. "It's what we wanted. We wanted to make sure at the end of the day all the food is gone, all the drinks. All the pies. We got a lot of volunteers, which is beautiful."

Miller is founder of the nonprofit Keep Your Faith Corp., which sponsored the annual free meal, now in its sixth year. They had key help from Mountain Mission, the West Virginia Power, Dollar Energy Fund and Generation Charleston, with Kroger, Sam's and others donating food and supplies.

Beatrice Wagner, who has lived on the West Side since 1941, took in the scene after finishing a meal of turkey, green beans, mashed potatoes, rolls and pie.

"I've been here a long time," she said of her tenure on the West Side. She has seen the place go from a safe residential community to one whose reputation too often signifies lawbreaking and troubled families, she said.

"Everything changes. It was a beautiful residential section when I came over here in the '40s. Everybody was a mom and dad. Everybody watched the kids. Everybody could chastise you, too," she said.

Events like the dinner, with kids dashing past elderly men and women who were finishing up apple pie, were a reminder that having something to do and someplace good to go helps everyone, she said.

"I think this is a beautiful outlet. As long as they are doing something constructive, as long as they're going up, not down, you know? You have to give them something to do because an idle mind is the devil's workshop."

Working the crowd before dishing out turkey for a spell was Sen. Joe Manchin. At one point, he draped an arm around Don Wilson, a West Side businessman and cousin of Miller, who helped him get Keep Your Faith going.

"It's just something special," said Manchin. "If you can count your blessings, you can share your blessings. If they have the will power, it'll have the horsepower."

"It's come a long way since the first year, you know," said Wilson. "We didn't have any corporate sponsors, we didn't have any publicity. We were trying to find that stuff. But we know with faith that we can do it. We did it."

The event is named in honor of Wilson's father, Earl Wilson, a cook for two decades at Bennigan's, who died soon before the 2009 dinner. Wilson's cousin surprised him at that year's dinner, handing him a plaque and announcing the event was being named after Wilson's dad.

"I definitely got emotional after learning that," he said. "Food always brought our family together. And this event brought the community together."

The first year of the dinner they wondered who could handle the kitchen, said Wilson, whose nickname growing up was "Taco." Who else?

"He was the best cook that we knew. You know, it was like Earl, Taco's dad! He ran the kitchen for the first year, him and Elliot Roseberry, who continues that legacy. Elliot's probably been here today since 8 or 9 o'clock this morning, cooking and prepping."

The organizers hope to expand the event next year by adding new locales, including Charleston's East End and McDowell County.

Randy Burnside, hoisting his granddaughter Marley in his arms, works at the Tiskelwah Center. He gazed around the packed room, wondering if they might need a bigger place as the event grows.

 "We want the West Side known that it's not all bad," he said. "Look at the people, look at the kids!"

John Roberts, director of the Mountain Mission, said he was glad his agency could help and then was delighted to witness the dinner's breadth. "It just pulls your heartstrings," he said.

"There are elderly people here that may not have a warm meal at home. We can't just sit and wait for families to come to us. We have to go out and look for them. Because people need people. We need our neighbors.

"This time of year, there's a lot of people that just don't have family or may not have the financial resources to be able to put a traditional Thanksgiving meal on the table. Groups coming together like this can really fill that void in a person's life.

"At the end of the day, they go home, they're fed, they feel like they're part of the community."

:Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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