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Have a helping Christmas: One neighborhood group rallies to make, deliver holiday dinners

Addie Broyles
Austin 360
Gabi Leite, left, and Mary Pierce work on a Thanksgiving dinner that a network of volunteers prepared last month. The group met online through a local Facebook group, and they are repeating the community giveaway effort for Christmas.

Two days before Thanksgiving, Mary Pierce’s Northwest Hills apartment smelled like potatoes. 

Not in an earthy garden kind of way, but in a comforting “we’re making mashed potatoes for 65 people” kind of way.

Pierce, a single mom of three with one teenage son still living at home, was in the middle of coordinating a community effort to give a full Thanksgiving dinner to more than 20 families, most of whom she didn't know. And she sure as heck wasn't going to serve them instant mashed potatoes.

Two days before Thanksgiving, Mary Pierce's dining room was a hub for drop-offs for a large community dinner that volunteers would help deliver later in the week.

Her small dining room and galley kitchen were the epicenter of the quickly pulled-together plan. Three tables were piled high with Hawaiian rolls and aluminum foil trays that would soon be filled with stuffing, green bean casserole and those mashed potatoes Pierce was about to make.

In her fridge, dozens of hard-boiled eggs from Costco were packed on top of 10 pounds of butter and a dozen containers of mac and cheese she had made a day earlier.

“I just woke up one day last week and decided this was what I wanted to do,” says Pierce, who moved to Austin from North Texas just more than a year ago. When she moved here, she quickly became active in her local Buy Nothing group on Facebook, a place where people give away items they have or ask for items they need. 

“There’s something about giving away so many things and people freely giving,” she says. “I had just moved to Austin and didn’t know anybody and I thought, ‘These are my people.’ I give everything away.”

Mary Pierce, an avid member of her local Buy Nothing group on Facebook, says she woke up a week before Thanksgiving and decided she wanted to make and deliver big holiday meals to people who needed them. Even before the dinners were finished, she was making plans to do the same at Christmas.

After she posted about her Thanksgiving idea in the group, she heard from so many people who wanted to help that she started a standalone Facebook group to coordinate all the tasks that needed to be done. 

And there was a lot to be done. She needed volunteers to cook the cranberry sauce and the casseroles. Pierce, admittedly, hates to bake, so the quickly growing network of people — most of whom Pierce had never met or even interacted with online — offered to bake pies, cookies and cinnamon rolls. “I do not think there is such a thing as too many baked goods,” she wrote in call capital letters early in the campaign. More sweets rolled in.

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Pierce, a former restaurant manager who now works part time as a private chef for a local family, knew she wouldn’t have enough oven and refrigerator space to cook and hold all the food she would be making, so she asked if anyone would help her store or bake food in their homes. Half a dozen people said yes. 

“I cried for the first day,” she says. “Not sad tears; it was just overwhelming to see so many people want to help.” 

No instant mashed potatoes allowed in Mary Pierce's kitchen in Northwest Hills. She cooked 150 pounds of potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner deliveries last month.

One of the first people she called for advice on how to host a large dinner for multiple people in separate homes was her grandmother, Dot, who lives in Pierce’s hometown of Shreveport and used to host large dinners at Thanksgiving and Christmas for her extended family and friends. 

“I’ve called my grandma every day,” Pierce says. “I’ve been surprisingly calm, but I had a moment of madness this morning, so I called her. I needed a moment of woosah,” a Louisiana term meaning understanding and calming. “She’s so proud of me; she keeps saying that."

Gabi Leite, one of Pierce’s neighbors and quarantine mates, stopped by to help chop vegetables for Mary to cook later.

“I don’t know if you’ve caught onto this, but Mary does this kind of stuff all the time,” Leite says as Pierce takes a phone call from one of the helpers.

“Her biggest love language is giving,” she says. “I’m so proud of her for taking this initiative and making it into something that so many more people could benefit from.” 

One helper donated two dozen jars of homemade cranberry jam for the Thanksgiving dinner.

Pierce says she learned early on in the process that it was important to post several times a day to keep the community of helpers up to date on what she needed and how they could help. With each update, more people found ways they could chip in.

Someone — she wasn’t entirely sure who — bought three bags of sparkling cider and delivered them to her doorstep, enough for each family. Strangers brought over coolers and ice. They dropped off cardboard boxes and Tupperware containers full of peeled potatoes. 

Mary Pierce cooks many of the dishes in her small Northwest Hills kitchen, but she also posted often on Facebook to solicit help in various forms, from baking pies to lending empty refrigerator space.

“The best part has been seeing the cute little kids help their parents bake cookies or come with them when they make a delivery,” Pierce says. 

Pierce, 40, doesn’t have a traditional job; she makes money through that cooking gig and an assortment of other side work, like redecorating or organizing, but it’s clear this kind of community work is where she feels most at home. 

She gathered monetary donations to pay for the groceries, and all the extra money went to H-E-B gift cards that were delivered with the Thanksgiving meals. 

These fruit trays were assembled by a member of a Northwest Hills-based Facebook group that recently delivered more than 20 meals for families in Central Texas.

By the week’s end, Pierce had cooked all 150 pounds of those potatoes — all peeled — in two gigantic pots, one on her stove and one on a propane burner outside. Each recipient, from a single-person household in Cedar Park to the two families who share an apartment in Belton, got a whole turkey or ham plus more sides and desserts than they could eat in a weekend.

Kristen Lumsden says she sat in her car with tears in her eyes after delivering some of the meals that week. "It was amazing to be a part of something so wonderful," she says. "I heard stories about how this pandemic has shifted and altered current life and how these families have been trying to push through, against it all. The gratitude and appreciation expressed was overwhelming."

Social media, especially after a year like this one, has been criticized for bringing more division than unity, but, Pierce says, “you’ve got to find the goodness in it.”

While she was wrapping up the Thanksgiving dinner, Pierce heard through the Buy Nothing grapevine that three other members of their group coordinated their own holiday delivery dinners after seeing her post. “That gives me the chills,” she says. “You feel a certain way after reading that.”

Pierce hadn't even made Thanksgiving's deliveries when she decided she wanted to do it all again for Christmas, this time with gifts.

Thanks to donations that were rolling in over the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Pierce's group has been able to buy gifts for 15 families, which they'll deliver along with a holiday meal this week. "We didn't just get a few things off the kids' list," she says. "We will have done everything on their lists plus things for the moms and dads and grandparents."

"People have dropped everything from coupons for me to go shopping and stocking stuffers for the kids, and some people have adopted whole families."

She says she's not exactly surprised by the response, but "I'm still kind of in shock. It's so comforting to know that there are that many people in the world who want to help." 

Have a Helping Holiday

Mary Pierce is one of many cooks filling their time this holiday finding ways that give back to people in her community. For three weeks, she’s been gathering gifts, donations and food donations for 15 families, some of whom she met through the Thanksgiving delivery. Friends, neighbors and strangers online have donated more than $2,300 toward the effort, and Piece and her network of shoppers have been spending as much of that money as they can at local shops to fulfill some of the gift wishes. The donation window for this second round of deliveries has closed, but Pierce says she hopes this will inspire other groups to coordinate efforts in their community.