A South Portland family tradition: Christmas dinner for homeless vets in Portland
PORTLAND — Jake Myrick and his family have their plans ready for Christmas Day.
"We have our Christmas done by 10:30, we are at the club by 11, peeling potatoes,” Myrick said Monday as he talked about a family tradition turning five years old next week.
The club is the Boys & Girls Club at 277 Cumberland Ave., where Myrick and more than a dozen of his relatives will host their annual Christmas dinner for homeless veterans, and anyone else looking for cheer, companionship and sustenance.
“On this day, their needs will be met. They will not be cold, they will not be hungry, they will not be bored,” Myrick promised.
As a boy growing up in Kennedy Park, Myrick was drawn to the club and its activities. As a young man, he served in the U.S. Army in Kosovo, Korea, and briefly, in Iraq.
Myrick, 38, now lives in South Portland with his fiance Wendy Rand, and their children. He has twice run for the Maine House of Representatives in District 123, a seat now held by Rep. Scott Hamann. He continues to work with Boys & Girls club members in South Portland and Portland.
The annual dinner is a large part of his life.
“If you are not homeless and have nowhere to go, come have dinner with friends,” Myrick said. "They may not be your friends now, but they will be by the time you leave."
Myrick said the idea first came to him as he drove through Portland around Thanksgiving in 2009. He passed a homeless veteran holding a sign looking for work and food.
Myrick bought him a meal, but came away determined to do more. He called his nephew, John Myrick, also an Army veteran, and suggested they organize a Thanksgiving dinner for homeless veterans.
But Thanksgiving was less than a week away, there was no time to pull together a meal. So Myrick decided to host a Christmas dinner. His mother, Betty Myrick, two sisters, five brothers, and two nephews quickly came on board for what became a potluck supper for almost 100 people at the club.
"This way we could all get together," Myrick said. "It was wonderful, we set up a living, room, people played pool, went into the gym."
Perhaps 100 people arrived, including one family waiting outside at 11 a.m. The need stunned Myrick.
“I was amazed and appalled at the same time," he said.
This year, he expects at least 350 people, but said it could be many more by the time dinner is served.
Betty Myrick, however, will not be there; she died last summer after a long struggle with lung cancer.
“We couldn't stop, and now it is for her," Myrick said. "She was the life of the party," mixing and mingling, and making the guests more comfortable.
Support for the dinner has grown, too, with Hannaford Bros. Co. contributing food, Oakhurst Dairy supplying milk and juices, and sources from Sanford to Windham to Cape Elizabeth providing clothing, toys and gifts.
Until last year, Myrick said they used gift cards to buy food.
"Wendy and I would go in and just take everything off the racks. We just grabbed all the buns and all the hams," he said.
In 2012, the contributions came directly from Hannaford Bros.; Myrick and friends filled his truck at a loading dock at the Back Cove store.
“We were doing a wheelie up the street,” he said, describing the truck as it left the store.
By Dec. 23, Myrick hopes to have everything in place, but he still welcomes donations at the club at 277 Cumberland Ave., or the South Portland club at 169 Broadway.
Volunteers are invited to help serve dinner or just welcome guests with greetings or by playing games of pool.
Myrick said he routinely gets tossed out of the kitchen while his sisters and fiance make dinner. Boys & Girls club members who attend the dinner with their families also pitch in.
“Come in, we will find something for you to do," he said. "Give the people in need a sense they are not in need."