Wake County

Annual Christmas meal may be the biggest ever, organizer says

A man fills up his plate during a free lunch for those in need near Moore Square in downtown Raleigh, on Christmas Day, Friday, December 25, 2015. The free lunch, started by Mary Brown, of Raleigh, is in it's 7th year and served more than 300 meals.
A man fills up his plate during a free lunch for those in need near Moore Square in downtown Raleigh, on Christmas Day, Friday, December 25, 2015. The free lunch, started by Mary Brown, of Raleigh, is in it's 7th year and served more than 300 meals. Al Drago

For the seventh year in a row, Mary Brown and a legion of volunteers took over a street in City Market to give people a Christmas meal.

People, some homeless and some without Christmas plans, lined up to get plates full of food. They could take as much as they wanted and get back in line as many times as they wanted – no questions asked.

With trucks full of turkey, ham, ribs, mashed potatoes and other holiday foods, it was the biggest Christmas meal Brown, 58, has ever organized, she said.

“This is my Christmas,” Brown said. “This is God’s Christmas to me. This is all the Christmas I need.”

Brown’s free Christmas meal has become a mainstay of sorts in downtown Raleigh. It’s passed through word of mouth among those who are looking for holiday food or company and among people interested in helping.

The event, which has gone without a name since it began, started as a small project handing out food in Moore Square eight years ago on Christmas Day.

Since then, Brown has enlisted restaurant and business owners, as well as community leaders, to give a Christmas meal to as many people as she can.

It’s hard for Brown to know exactly how many people she serves, how many show up to volunteer or exactly how much food she’s gathered. She just knows it’s enough to welcome any person who comes.

“This is not cheap, but it’s worth it,” she said. “Anybody can feed you ... but you’ve got to feel the passion.”

Anthony Sanders, 46, learned about the event Friday morning from a friend. Sanders got a to-go carton of food and sat outside Woody’s At City Market to eat it. He was looking forward to trying the ribs and macaroni and cheese, he said.

Sanders is homeless and without the Christmas meal, he’s not sure how he would spend the day, he said. Being around enthusiastic and welcoming volunteers was one of the best parts for Sanders.

“It’s elegant, organized and professional,” he said.

Wil O’Neal, a co-owner of Winston’s Grille in North Raleigh, has known Brown for more than 20 years and likes to help her. This year, he stored most of the donated food at the restaurant until it was ready to be delivered downtown.

“This is a big to-do,” he said. “When (Mary) asks for something, everybody will jump because she does so much for everyone else during the year.”

Brown’s giving isn’t just at Christmas. She fills backpacks with supplies for children at the beginning of the school year and she regularly buys groceries for families who need some help.

“The best thing in life you can do is something for others,” she said.

Brown grew up in South Carolina and always remembers food as a comfort. Her dad used to walk to the store and buy a coconut cake for each of his 11 children’s birthdays. There was always enough food to spare in the Brown house.

Her dad’s compassion carried over not just to Brown, but her brother Joe as well. Joe Brown often traveled from South Carolina to help with the event in Raleigh. Last year, Joe Brown was sick with pancreatic cancer and couldn’t travel, so Mary Brown dedicated the day to him.

Joe Brown died earlier this year, but he was still there in spirit on Christmas Day while Mary Brown coordinated the seemingly endless trucks and volunteers.

“He believed in this,” Mary Brown said of her brother. “He believed in helping people.”

Mechelle Hankerson: 919-829-4802, @mechelleh

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