|Posted by Anne Siren on November 16, 2012 at 2:05 PM|
Lauderdale-By-The-Sea -- Eric Yankwitt credits his daughter Lindsey, then 15, as the inspiration for the “Thanksgiving dinner for Holiday Orphans” he now organizes for about 12,000 people in 40 locations.
He recalls a conversation seven years ago when as a single parent, he didn’t know how to make the holiday festive for Lindsey.
“It’s just you and me and grandpa. Are you kidding?” she said. “ Why can’t we go to New York? [to see relatives as they had in other years.]
The trip wasn’t possible that year because Yankwitt, an attorney, had an upcoming trial. He tried to look at the situation through his daughter’s eyes and could see the pain. Their family didn’t match those large, happy groups of relatives gathered around the holiday table in TV ads.
Eric and Lindsey figured there must be other families in the same boat as them. He was president of the Lauderhill Chamber of Commerce at the time, and he mentioned his situation to chamber members. “I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve,” he said.
A month later they partnered with the Lord of the Word Church and the Smart School in Lauderhill and served a free Thanksgiving dinner to about 1,000 people.
Yankwitt has continued the effort through the Florida Community Support Organization, a non-profit group he founded, along with Verenice Rapaport, now his fiancée. Rapaport is a social worker with Broward County. She and Yankwitt met through community outreach projects.
The organization works “to build a better community one neighbor at a time,” he says.
In a promotional flyer, Yankwitt calls Thanksgiving “a wonderful day to celebrate with your neighbors. We have a lot to be thankful for in life. Many of us have family that live outside our immediate area and for one reason or another we will not be able to spend time with them this holiday.”
This year, for the first time, Jarvis Hall, at 4505 N. Ocean Drive in LBTS will be the site for one of the dinners. Yankwitt invites residents to come for a free holiday meal and begin to know one another. The event is set from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“I want them to meet their neighbors, and then they have the best gift of all _-- a friend and someone to rely on. That helps to grow our community,” he says.
The day after a hurricane we’re all thankful, and we meet our neighbors. “But we don’t have to wait for a hurricane,” he says.
Through these dinners, Yankwitt says friendships and relationships are formed. Rapaport recalled one guest, a veteran whose daughter usually sent him airline tickets so he could travel to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving each year. He always enjoyed the trip and seeing his grandchildren. But two years ago his daughter lost her job and was unable to provide the tickets. Instead, he was persuaded to go to a dinner for holiday orphans, where he met several vets and joined in the singing. He had a ball.
Yankwitt emphasizes the goal of the dinner is communication. “We’ve taught that it’s OK to ignore people around us and communicate electronically,” he says. “I don’t know why we’re so detached from each other and why we’re OK with that.”
At the holiday dinner he asks that cellphones be turned off. “I tell guests that the dinner is free, but I will charge $20 every time their phone makes a noise,” he quips.
He urges local holiday orphans to come to the dinner and connect with their neighbors face-to-face.
“If you’re looking for a gourmet dinner, this is not it. It’s not Zagat-rated. The food is good, and the menu includes turkey and all the usual trimmings,” Yankwitt said. There won’t be fine china and silver. Dinner is served in a styrofoam container with plasticware. But just as at home, guests are invited to have seconds and even to take leftovers home.
Besides the food, the event at Jarvis will include entertainment by a dance troupe, Casa Salsa; music by Marcel Rasa; a tai chi demonstration and a silent auction with raffle prizes.
The free holiday dinners also will be held at many area churches, VFW halls and the American Legions. The parking lot at Yankwitt’s law office on Atlantic Boulevard in Pompano Beach serves as the distribution center. Last year they served 150 dinners in the parking lot to guests, including college students and tourists.
Yankwitt’s daughter Lindsey, now 21 and studying psychology at Florida Atlantic University will be helping out at the dinner in LBTS.
Her brother David, 24, is just back from serving in Afghanistan. He is also a student at FAU and plans to go to law school.
Rapaport’s son Alberto, is coming for the holiday from New Jersey, where he was a victim of Hurricane Sandy.
More volunteers are needed to help out at the LBTS dinner, and donations are always welcome. For reservations or more information, call Eric Yankwitt at 954-449-4368. For a list of other sites where dinners for holiday orphans are planned, see the website at www.FloridaCommunitySupport.Org.