In the past 17 months, Jennifer Ollom has been homeless, had her three children taken away and two of them returned. But on Thursday, she was able to take a break from those hardships and celebrate her accomplishments and her blessings with her family over a hot, traditional Thanksgiving feast and festivities provided at no charge by Chronis’ Restaurant and Lounge in downtown Vancouver.
“This is a very happy Thanksgiving because we have our two kids with us,” Ollom said.
Now in its 27th year of operation, the complementary Thanksgiving event Thursday drew hundreds attendees. An exact count was not available Thursday night.
In addition to serving them food, volunteers took photos of Ollom and her family, which included her two daughters and a few cousins, and sent them home with the 8-by-11 photos of themselves in page protectors and food to go for family members who missed the event. Ollom lives at Open House Ministries, a program to help the homeless find jobs and housing, with her husband and two daughters. Her husband couldn’t make the event because he had been up all night at work. He works two jobs, Ollom said.
Some of the diners were homeless; others were scraping by on a low income or public assistance. Some of them would have otherwise been alone on the holiday and wanted to celebrate with other people in a warm and lively place.
About 15 volunteers and restaurant owner Chuck Chronis greeted a steady stream of diners as if they were celebrities.
“We want everyone to feel welcome,” Chronis said. “I tell the volunteers if their heart isn’t in it, we don’t want them here.”
Johnnie Lagana of the Knights of Columbus added to the cheerful atmosphere by dressing up and playing the part of Santa Claus. Chronis’ wife, Sandy, handed out hats, gloves and scarves.
“This event is important to all of us,” Chronis said. “We hear so many stories about how people have been touched by this. That’s what makes it worth it.”
A 65-year-old woman and her friend, a 66-year-old woman, who didn’t want to give their names, said they had no family in the area to spend Thanksgiving with.
“For us, it’s something to do,” the 65-year-old said. “We live in small apartments. Sometimes it feels the four walls are closing in on you. I love living in a community where they offer something like this. They’ve really done an outstanding job. I’m really impressed.”
Hundreds of people also turned out for a free Thanksgiving meal Thursday at Lord’s Gym in the Rose Village neighborhood. The nonprofit organization offers discount gym memberships and athletic programs designed to give young people constructive activities outside of school. It also has programs for recovering addicts.
Thursday’s event inside the gym included a traditional Thanksgiving spread and live music.
“It’s a place to get away from home,” said Vancouver resident Tara Cruz. “It’s a more uplifting environment.”
Cruz ate at the event with her 22-year-old son, Adam Carlson, and father, Ralph Carlson.
Cruz lives off Social Security benefits, and her son is out of work.
“Sometimes it’s hard to make ends meet,” she said. “We didn’t have money to make anything so it’s nice to come here.”
Another couple that declined to give their names said that if it weren’t for the event, they would be at home eating ramen noodles.
“Ramen noodles are better than starving,” the man said.
Vancouver resident Tammy Gagnier-Powell said she went to the Lord’s Gym event because she didn’t want to spend Thanksgiving alone. Her kids are in Minnesota, and she recently went through a divorce. She’s also been unemployed for the past year and a half.
“Times are so hard for everybody,” she said. “The people at Lord’s Gym are wonderful. This place is amazing.”