Mary Brown is one of those people whose enthusiasm for helping others gives her a power of persuasion so special that it’s next to impossible to say ‘no’ to her.
That was evident among the flock of friends and fans who came together on Christmas Day in downtown Raleigh to offer to anyone and everyone a holiday feast that went way beyond the traditional trimmings.
Anne Hargrove, manager of a Belk flagship store in Crabtree Valley Mall, had been on the job for only about two weeks when she got a call in August from Brown. That call led to a coat drive among Belk workers in Hargrove’s store and a nearby Cary store, and an offering of 200 new or gently used free coats on a rack just beyond the buffet table for those in need. Hargrove brought her three children, Taylor, 11, Kevin, 9, and Patrick, 7, to the event Sunday to reap the reward of giving that brims in Brown.
“What struck me was Mary just loves her community and just wanted to give back,” said Hargrove, who joined dozens of other volunteers who spent part of their holiday at City Market, a complex of restaurants, stores and civic space across the street from Moore Square, helping Brown fulfill a dream.
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Brown, a dynamo who runs a housecleaning business, moves with spunk and grace among the volunteers and guests at her annual Christmas dinner.
“Merry Christmas,” she says over and over between hugs, catching-up conversations with visitors and interviews with the media chronicling her latest rendition of an event born among five friends in 2007.
‘Had to do something’
On a Thanksgiving day nine years ago, Brown and four others decided to take a ham, turkey and several side dishes to Moore Square, a downtown spot near shelters and other relief organizations offering help to homeless people.
The food went quickly, but memories of an encounter with a little girl lingered with Brown.
The girl had come in search of the homecooked meals others had raved about, but nothing was left to serve her.
A nearby McDonald’s was one of the few places open in the city on that holiday. Brown took the girl to the fast food restaurant and provided her with as much sustenance as she could.
“That drove something inside me — told me I had to do something,” Brown recalled.
That “something” has turned into an ever-growing Christmas event that draws people in search of fellowship and that warm feeling they get from giving to others, as much as the bounty of food on the long tables.
William, Deborah and Amanda Holder of Raleigh have a McDonald’s restaurant, a different one from the place Brown took the little girl. They close only one day a year — and that’s Christmas, so their workers can be with family. Instead of staying home for the holiday, though, the Holders check in with Brown before the community feast and find out what their favorite volunteer would like to see at the long buffet table.
Deborah Holder cooked about 3 pounds of macaroni and cheese and brought two coconut pies to add to the fare — turkey, ham, green bean casseroles, greens, potato salad, mashed potatoes and all kinds of desserts. At least 17 cakes were on the table, as well as 200 cupcakes. Someone had filled small bags with cookies and tied them up with green ribbons for take-home gifts. The Oak City Fish and Chips food truck handed out seafood dinners alongside the Ribs By Art food truck.
“It’s just a great event,” Deborah Holder said, standing off the side of the line where guests filled up to-go boxes. “Every year it just keeps getting bigger.”
George Clooney, you’re invited
Ronald Dendy stood beside Art Fields, whose ribs food truck offerings were a big hit. The men had become regulars at Brown’s Christmas dinners and counted many of the others they saw each year as extended family, including Brown.
“Ms. Mary makes you a fan,” Dendy said. “You come in contact with her one time and you want to help her for life.”
Glenn Johnson, a Raleigh resident since 1999 who works at Hayes Barton Baptist Church, became a quick fan, too, as he walked away with a boxed dinner.
“To come out here and have a Christmas like this is a gift from God,” Johnson said. “This is a time of giving, and those people over there have a heart of God.”
Luis Santamaria, a Raleigh resident who hails from Mexico City, said his faith prompted him to volunteer at the annual dinner. “Jesus said, ‘People will know you are my disciple by the love you have for one another,’ ” Santamaria said. “These are my brothers. That is why I am here.”
Brown, who was quick to point to all the others who had helped her pull off the 2016 holiday meal and coat drive, was thrilled to have her sisters and newly widowed sister-in-law join her this year. Though she misses her brother, who died recently, she was happy with the crowd.
Then she stopped. With a wide smile and a playful optimism, she tossed out one name she would like to see on the guest list in 2017.
“George Clooney,” Brown said, building on comments she had made earlier about the actor being the only one who might be able to lure her away from the annual festivities.
Then she changed her mind. “He needs to come here,” Brown added. “That’s right. Tell George Clooney he needs to get over here. Look at all this home-cooking.”
Stay tuned for 2017. Who knows if Brown’s power of persuasion can pull the Hollywood star to Raleigh on Christmas Day. Those who know Brown don’t count it out.
“You can’t say ‘no’ to her,” Fields and Dendy said in unison.