Nov. 23, 2011
BY DREW RUTHERFORD
Classes on UT's campus are taking a break for Thanksgiving, which means students are packing up their cars, heading home to eat turkey, watch football and visit with family.
But for some Knoxville residents, that isn't the Thanksgiving they know.
For thousands living in Knoxville, there is no home. And without a home, celebrating Thanksgiving gets complicated. On Sunday night, though around 100 local homeless got to celebrate the holiday with Tennessee student-athletes at the Varsity Inn inside Gibbs Hall.
"This is such a wonderful opportunity," senior diver Gabrielle Trudeau said. "It's getting colder outside, and it's great to be able to offer these people a break, a warm meal and some new clothes."
UT student-athletes took turns carving turkey, dishing out sweet potatoes and stuffing. But for the staff at the Varsity Inn, which is not normally open on weekends, the opportunity to open its kitchen for this cause was not one they could pass up.
"This is just a pleasure for all of us to come in and do something for people who need it," said Jason Timmons, the Varsity Inn's head chef. "During the week, we love serving Tennessee's student-athletes, but this is a really special opportunity and it's such a joy for us to come in and do this."
Prior to the turkey carving, Trudeau, president of Tennessee's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, contacted every UT head coach and rounded up leftover Tennessee gear from each team. Tables filled with sweats, t-shirts, jackets, shoes and other apparel were distributed following the meal.
Student-athletes have also been saving toiletries from the many hotels they stay in while traveling to compete for UT on the road. Every year when the SAAC organizes this holiday dinner, the individual soaps, shampoos and other toiletry items are placed in zip-top bags and handed out.
"When we go to meets away, I always tell everyone to remember to bring back their toiletries from the hotel," Trudeau said. "I usually come back with a lot in my luggage, and now we are able to provide a small amount of toiletries for these people."
After the cranberry sauce was gone, the group played several rounds of Bingo together, with UT gear serving as prizes for the winners. With full stomachs, new clothes and some toiletries, the group departed -- some to shelters. Unfortunately some have nowhere to return to but the street.
But, if only for a few hours Sunday night, they were able to celebrate Thanksgiving with each other.
"Hopefully this was fun for a couple of hours and helped them get away from whatever it is that caused them to be in this situation," said Donna Thomas, director of UT's Thornton Athletics Student Life Center. "These folks probably don't care if these student-athletes play a sport or not. This was an opportunity to be involved in the community in a way that has some very real meaning to the people we're serving."