It could have been a tough Thanksgiving for Latasha Stewart to celebrate this year. The 30-year-old mother of four lost nearly everything when Hurricane Katrina ravaged her New Orleans apartment in October.
She kept her children on the second floor of their apartment until evening when a rescue boat saved them and brought them to a shelter, and escaped with the clothes on her back and her children’s birth and medical records.
But on Thursday, celebrating Thanksgiving at a community lunch at Parkway Baptist Church in Mesa, Stewart said she has a lot to be thankful for — including the church members who sponsored her move to Arizona.
"I’m thankful for their getting us out of there, for putting us in our own place, putting the kids in school, I just thank the Lord," she said. Still, the holidays aren’t the same for Stewart, who is miles away from her other family members, and she dreams of someday getting a big house so they can come and live with her in Arizona.
"We’ve been trying to find somebody, but everybody is scattered — aunts, uncles, cousins," she said. "I don’t even know where my dad is."
Loneliness is a plight shared by other East Valley residents during the holidays, said Sandy Oser, a missionary at the church, which is why she helped host the community lunch of home-baked ham, turkey and trimming for anyone who didn’t want to be alone.
"I think that people don’t understand that being alone on the holidays is absolutely one of the worst things," said Oser, who recently moved from Florida. "This is for people who need the food, such as homeless people, or people like me who have no family whatsoever here."
Various churches and shelters served Thanksgiving meals throughout the East Valley.
At Paz de Cristo Community Center in Mesa, more than 200 people were expected to come for free dinner, said director Mike Boos. The center already distributed 748 turkeys to families earlier in the week.
"I’m too lazy to cook Thanksgiving dinner for myself, and I don’t have enough money to go to Denny’s," said Jeff Bunch as he walked toward the line.
Bunch, a Vietnam War combat veteran, said he was a "regular" at the center a couple years ago. Since then, an increase in his veterans benefits has allowed him to move out of the van he was living in, and into an apartment in Mesa. It’s just one thing he’s thankful for. "I’m thankful to be alive and, aside from some arthritis, to be in good health," he said.