Man, remembering how lonely deployment felt, seeks to feed homeless vets on Christmas

Posted Dec. 21, 2011, at 5:38 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 22, 2011, at 5:41 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Jake Myrick’s story is the kind that defines the Christmas spirit.

But Myrick’s Christmas story this year needs a little last-minute magic from volunteers and supporters. His now-annual Dec. 25 feast for homeless veterans is falling short on donations compared with last year despite being expanded to two sites.

On Thanksgiving Day in 2009, Myrick passed by a man on the streets of Portland holding a sign reading “Homeless Vet will work for food.” Signs like it are passed each day by thousands of workers and residents in Maine’s largest city, and Myrick probably wasn’t the first person to see that particular sign on that particular day.

But he was the first person to pick the man up and take him to get some food on that holiday.

“All at once I remembered how lonely I felt being deployed during the holiday season,” Myrick, an Army veteran, recalled.

The interaction planted the seed for what would become an annual Christmas supper organized by Myrick and his family for hundreds of veterans facing homelessness or other life crises. Just a month after picking up the man with the sign, Myrick and his nephew, fellow Army veteran John, held their first Christmas dinner at the Portland Boys & Girls Club, where Jake Myrick works.

“The first year, we fed nearly 125 people in need,” Jake Myrick wrote in a letter he distributed this month to media outlets in the state. “The next year in 2010, that number grew to roughly 200. This year, we intend to provide food at two sites, reaching out to even more people in need. Not only will we open the Portland Boys & Girls Club, we will deliver dinner to the Milestone shelter that beds 80 people who are fighting homelessness and drug and alcohol addiction.”

Even Maine’s U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe has weighed in, writing in a letter to be read at the event that the Myricks’ efforts serve “as a reminder to all of us as to what really matters in life — the willingness to serve others.”

But this year, John Myrick told the Bangor Daily News, the family is worried the public is less aware of the event. During the ramp-up to their 2010 supper, the nephew said they received heavy media coverage and many calls and letters pledging donations or volunteer time.

Now, with two sites and hopes to serve even more than last year’s crowd of 200, John Myrick said, “we haven’t received a tenth of the emails or phone calls that we did last year.”

“We don’t want any veterans to be spending the holidays alone,” the younger Myrick said. “Whether they’re homeless or down on their luck, we don’t want them to be alone. We know that the word has spread, and we know that the area shelters are informed. But we want to make this bigger. We want this to grow, but we’re a little afraid that people aren’t as informed — that they don’t know about it.”

John Myrick, who said the event is open to any homeless person who needs a hot meal, said one man who spoke at last year’s Christmas dinner said it was the first time he had spent the holiday with people who wanted to be in his company.

“He said to us he didn’t even know when Christmas was,” recalled the nephew, who said at least on deployment soldiers have other soldiers to commiserate with. “He didn’t even keep track of the days because he’d been down on his luck for years. Neither one of us could fathom spending the holidays without anybody. Some of these people are spending the holiday alone. They’re not spending it at the shelter or with family and friends, they’re spending it under a bridge or behind buildings in the cold. I can’t even imagine how that feels.”

The doors open to the Portland Boys & Girls Club at 1 p.m. on Christmas, with dinner to be served at 4:30 p.m. Dinner at the Milestone Foundation’s India Street facility is open to residents and staff at the location and is scheduled to be served at 4 p.m.

For information on the event and how to help, visit the event’s Facebook page.

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