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Volunteers give thanks to veterans

Shaun Meadors left eats Thanksgiving dinner as volunteer Jordan Rogers 6 serves food Rainbow PUSH 930 E. 50th St. Thursday

Shaun Meadors, left, eats Thanksgiving dinner as volunteer Jordan Rogers, 6, serves food at Rainbow PUSH, 930 E. 50th St., Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 26, 2011 9:07AM

For many people in the Chicago area, Thanksgiving wasn’t only about eating enormous amounts of food and watching football from the couch. Hundreds of people opted to spend at least part of the day volunteering for others.

At the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition on the South Side, adult and child volunteers served scrumptious meals of turkey, ham, stuffing, potatoes, mac and cheese, green bean casserole and more, to about 300 veterans.

The organization used the occasion to highlight the problem many vets face when returning home in a bad economy.

Gertrude Carter of Chicago served as a medic at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the mid- to late-’80s. Even then, when the economy was a little better, Carter said it was tough to transition into the private sector. For example, her medic experience wasn’t fully credited by potential employers, who needed her to get retrained. She eventually did that and found employment at a hospital — but not before temporarily becoming homeless along with her children.

“Even back then, it wasn’t simple for veterans to find a job,” she said.

As for employers, Carter would like them to know that veterans bring many worthwhile qualities to a job. “Discipline, reliability, respect and dignity. And compassion,” she said. “Even today, a lot of the principles I learned in the military, I still carry with me.”

Rainbow/PUSH’s founder, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., said it’s a disgrace that veterans come home from wars to face unemployment, inadequate health care and worries about food and shelter. A recent government study found that while veterans make up 9.5 percent of the U.S. adult population, they account for about 16 percent of the homeless population.

Jackson said the issue of food insecurity affects more than veterans and that the nation needs another War on Poverty to make sure poor children have good nutrition and health care. “We’ll feed them again on Christmas Day, but there are 363 more days,” Jackson said.

Across the Chicago area, others were spreading their own good will.

In Chicago Ridge, the police and the American Legion hosted sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Base.

At La Rabida Children’s Hospital, donors and volunteer chefs came together to produce the hospital’s 51st annual Thanksgiving feast for patients and their families.

At the Kids Off The Block community center in Roseland, dozens of volunteers served Thanksgiving meals to hundreds of residents in the low-income, Far South Side neighborhood. The community group usually erects a spacious tent in a nearby lot for the meal, but this year, because of financial strains, it moved the event inside its cramped center on South Michigan Avenue.

“We had to improvise, but it was great,” said Diane Latiker, founder and executive director of the community group, who said residents need help because many are jobless and struggling.

“It’s very tough,” Latiker said. “They were already having trouble. Now, with the economy, it’s worse.”

Among those donating food to the effort was former pro basketball great Isiah Thomas, whose Mary’s Court program provided 100 turkeys for Thanksgiving. Other organizations and individual volunteers brought turkeys, smoked salmon and side dishes for the meal.

Amateur chef and foodie Lou Bank made 16 chocolate sweet-potato pies and smoked 13 pounds of salmon for the meal.

“It’s a really good crowd. It feels good to help,” Bank, a Humboldt Park resident, said as he helped serve the food.

Some young volunteers said the Thanksgiving meal helps bring the community together and sends an important message to residents.

“It shows people care. It shows there’s someone out there willing to help,” said Shaniqua Wilkins, 18, a member of the Golden Knight Drill Team, which after enjoying the meal, performed a dazzling dance-and-drill routine outside the community center.

Residents enjoying the turkey and trimmings agreed.

“It’s a chance for the community to come together,” said Lynn Grayson, a 46-year-old Roseland resident, who said he wasn’t sure what he otherwise would have done for Thanksgiving because he’s out of work.

“We haven’t cooked anything because we’re short of money,” Grayson said as he and a friend filled their plates. “We’re glad we have a chance to come here and eat.”

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