Free Christmas meal at City Market feeds the hungry

Mary Brown's legion of volunteers seemed to grow by the minute.

Thursday was the fifth time she had organized a free Christmas meal for the homeless and the hungry at City Market, across from Moore Square in downtown Raleigh.

As Brown scurried around, making sure food was going to the right place and answering calls on her cellphone, volunteers drove up with hams, chicken, cakes and coffee - even a whole pig.

Others brought their desire to help the less fortunate, particularly on a day like Christmas, when the spirit of the season is in full force and blessings are counted.

Some have come since she started the big meal years ago, first at Thanksgiving, or when she met them at a backpack giveaway she organized this fall. Others heard of it through word-of-mouth and were pitching in for the first time.

"So many good people came out," Brown said. "This is not an organization. This is about people saying we want people to have a good meal on Christmas Day."

That's how Brown works. Her passion for giving is contagious, volunteers said.

"Every time Mary Brown calls, we pick up the phone and do whatever she asks," said Sean Fowler, owner and chef at Mandolin restaurant. He and his wife, Lizzy, brought hot trays of mashed potatoes and green beans.

"She's a very charismatic, sweet, endearing individual," he said.

He wasn't the only one to praise the exuberant Brown and her ability to mobilize others to give their time and resources.

"She's an angel," said Chris Corchiani, a former N.C. State and professional basketball player who now owns a convenience store. He brought hats and blankets and would have helped serve the food, but the serving line already was crowded with a diverse group of adults and children.

"What she does and the way she gives - it makes you realize how fortunate you are," he said.

That's the lesson Laura and Chuck Nwokocha hoped to impart to their children, Julia, 6, and Sebastian, 2. They make volunteering an integral part of their lives, whether through church, work or just hearing about opportunities such as the City Market meal. It was their first time helping Brown, and they found Julia a spot on the volunteer side of the table to hand out biscuits.

"We think a lot of what we have," Laura Nwokocha said. "We try to make the holiday less about getting."

Brown knows she couldn't do it all by herself, especially as the meal grows and draws repeat visitors. She's ready to rattle off the businesses that help make the meals and the backpack giveaways possible.

She first started the meals in Moore Square at Thanksgiving six years ago. After everyone was fed, a young girl came up to her and asked if she had any more food. She didn't, but she found an open McDonald's to get the girl a meal.

"I never forgot that," Brown said. "That little girl stayed in the back of my mind. I knew there was a need to do this."

She doesn't care whether those who come for the food are homeless or are just having a bad day. She wants people to know that there are those who care about them, especially on Christmas. She knows people can fall on rough times.

"When you look at homeless people, it could be my brother, it could be my sister, it could be anyone," she said. "It's easy to knock someone down. I want to bring people up."

A man named Frankie, who didn't want to give his last name, said he's not homeless "by any means." But he's away from his family in South Carolina and works construction in the area. He sends part of his paycheck to his 25-year-old daughter, who has cancer.

"I've got to sacrifice for my kids," he said. Thursday's meal, he said, "means I get to eat."

Mercedes Jeffries said she appreciates the meal. She came with her mother, brother and 15-month-old daughter, Nevaeh Jeffries. Jeffries pushed Nevaeh in a stroller while leaving with plastic foam containers packed with food. She's not homeless, but it can be a struggle to find food, she said.

"I would like everyone to be happy on Christmas Day," she said. "Everyone needs to be fed and comfortable."

This year, the meal means even more to Brown. Her younger brother has pancreatic cancer. He had served food at the event a few times but is unable to travel from his home in South Carolina.

While Brown busied herself with logistics, her brother, Joe, remained at the forefront of her mind. She dedicated the meal to him, knowing that he believes in her mission and he wants her to keep doing what she's doing.

"I'm seeing it a little different," she said. "You have to savor life. Nothing is given."