Brent Cronin’s Thanksgiving brunch first became a holiday tradition eight years ago. The feast, typically held at St. Michael’s Church in Kensington, has become a staple event for the homeless population in the neighborhood, who, thanks to the goodwill of people like Cronin, flock to the church to make sure they don’t go hungry on the eve of the most gluttonous day of the year.
This year, things looked a little bit different. With the pandemic surpassing early spring levels, having the event inside the church just wasn’t feasible. So Cronin partnered with Prevention Point to hold his event on the lot at the corner of Ruth and Clearfield streets – the same spot Prevention Point holds its daily food giveaways.
“We couldn’t sit down and we couldn’t do all-you-can-eat with the pandemic,” Cronin said. “We were using Prevention Point’s site for socially distancing measures.”
The change in location meant Cronin had to pay “a couple hundred” bucks for a permit and complete a ServSafe test to be licensed to have the event. But it was all worth it in the end.
“God gave me a second chance and I’m just really grateful so I want to help people,” said Cronin, who suffered from addiction in a previous life and is coming up on 12 years sober. “I’m not a real religious man, but I do have a strong belief in God. And what God really wants us to do is to help the less fortunate.”
Roz Pichardo, who does community outreach for Prevention Point and is also the founder of Operation Save Our City, said protecting homeless people has been a unique challenge during the pandemic because of the safety limitations those in the medical field have recommended.
“it’s really hard [for the homeless] to social distance,” she said, “but we don’t want to isolate people, either.”
For Pichardo, the holiday was just one more reason to give back.
“We just feel like our community is already underserved,” she said, “so we want to do something extra and make sure everybody’s fed for Thanksgiving.”
According to the operation’s head chef Mark Brinton, 43 turkeys were cooked for the event. Furthermore, Brinton and two assistant chefs made 30 pounds of cranberry sauce, 40 pounds of stuffing, 120 pounds of sweet potatoes and 150 pounds of mashed potatoes. Everything, with the exception of corn on the cob, was made from scratch.
“We shop for the food on Friday, brine the turkeys Saturday, cook turkeys Sunday and Monday and all the sides get done between Saturday and Tuesday,” Brinton said of the operation. “We made sure we kept our distance and wore masks and took all the precautions we needed to.”
Like previous years, the chefs made the food in St. Michael’s kitchen. The food was then transported by volunteers to the Ruth and Clearfield site. Several trips were made throughout the day.
Patrick O’Neill, a Rivers Casino employee and lifetime Kensington resident who volunteered at the food giveaway, said that the event shows that lots of people in the neighborhood care more about the homeless than people think.
“I’ve seen Kensington go from a really nice place to live to the really bad fall with the drugs,” he said. “I figured with everything going on in the world it’d be good to give a little something back to the people. People have a lot of need these days, and it’s nice to help out.”
Brinton said it was important to give back to people in need in part because it sets an example for his three children, plus his nieces and nephews.
“Them seeing this event and understanding the importance of what’s going on and that there are a lot more people than there normally are who don’t have [hot meals is important],” he said. “It is important because sometimes we get caught up in our bubble, but you never want to see anyone be hungry. You have to eat and it’s part of your life. I wish I could do it more.”
The crew made more than 400 meals, and what was left over went to St. Francis’s soup kitchen on Kensington Avenue. At the end of the day, the event leaves Cronin with the satisfying feeling of knowing he made a difference in his neighborhood. Cronin and his volunteers also gave away bags of toiletries and 200 coats at the event. Furthermore, each person was given a take-home box complete with two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a Tastykake, a granola bar, a bottle of water, an apple and an orange.
“I don’t think anybody wants to wake up on Kensington Avenue and jones for heroin,” he said. “I don’t think when we’re children we want to wake up and say, ‘I want to be a junkie and live on Kensington Avenue.’ ”
Cronin knows what it feels like, since he was there, too.
“It’s just a deal I made with God,” he said. “When I was out there I said, ‘If you help me, I swear I’ll help the homeless one day.’ And five years after recovery I started this.”