Maria Hernandez and her family don’t always get to sit down with a warm-cooked meal for the Thanksgiving holiday. Depending how much money they have, the six-piece family from Peñitas may not have a meal at all. But for the last three years they gathered around the table with the traditional turkey dish and celebrated their time together.
About 1,000 people attended the Buckner Family Hope Care Center’s third annual Community Thanksgiving on Nov. 21. The non-profit organization provides support for families living in colonias, such as Pueblo Palmas, and the dinner is just one of the events held for the residents.
Hernandez, her two children and three grandchildren adopted the Thanksgiving tradition when they moved to Peñitas from Tampico seven years ago. Although she doesn’t work steadily, she picks up odd jobs here and there to provide for her family, such as making piñatas, childcare and house maintenance.
“To go out to work, we struggle because we don’t have a car,” Hernandez said in Spanish. “We don’t have a car to go out to work, so we make tamales. But (we) give thanks to God for what he has given us – first for our life and then for everything else.”
The Hernandez family also volunteers at the Buckner Hope Center, where they offer classes such as bow making and coupon finance. After residents complete a leadership class, then they themselves can become leaders at the facility and volunteer by offering classes to others.
Jana Henriquez, the Buckner community coordinator, said that the center has built rapport with the community since it’s establishment in 2011 and gains volunteers by word of mouth. Additionally, the organization has relations with the school district and a lot of the social workers refer the families to Buckner, she said.
Henriquez was the sole organizer for the Thanksgiving dinner, but relied heavily on the volunteers of the families and other organizations such as Crime Stoppers and First Baptist Church San Isidro. Since the inaugural event, the number of attending families has risen.
“What makes it very special is that this is the only opportunity for a lot of our families to have a Thanksgiving meal as a family together, actually seated at a table, having a great time and relaxing,” Henriquez said. “We know that for some of our families this might be the only turkey that they receive for the Thanksgiving holiday, so we really put all our effort for this event for this to be really nice to them.”
Families gathered under the dining tents in the drizzling weather and lined up one-by-one to receive their meal. Attendee Maria Gutierrez, a 35-year-old originally from Reynosa, also adopted the American holiday with her family when she moved to Peñitas 12 years ago. Even though she enjoys the dinner and dessert served to them, her favorite part is the people.
“We do have a dinner, we do something at home, but a lot of people aren’t able to have something like this,” Gutierrez said. “It’s a great blessing for the community, above all else.”
Like Hernandez, Gutierrez and her family also volunteer at the Buckner center and accumulate Buckner Bucks that they can use at Buckner’s Christmas Market. The representatives at the Hope Center are aware that many of the families also don’t get to participate in the gift-giving aspect of Christmas due to financial reasons, so they set up a market at the outreach center with household necessities.
“For coming to each class or participating for any kind of event at the center they get points. At the market we have anything from hygiene items to clothes and blankets,” Henriquez said. “It just helps them to understand that we can’t pay them with money, but they can also help themselves by just helping out the community.”
Even though Gutierrez, her husband and four daughters celebrate the holiday at their own home, they continue to return to the community dinner as a reminder to be appreciative for what they have.
“I just want to give thanks for making an event every year,” Gutierrez said as she motioned to the other families gather under the tent. “It’s an event you can share with different people and it’s a blessing for many people.”