Fast Company

A Fast Company Tribute: Give Thanks for Bea Gaddy

Best known for feeding thousands of needy people each Thanksgiving, Baltimore's Bea Gaddy was a tenacious advocate for the indigent year-round. Following her recent death, her children and her volunteers face the challenge of continuing her life's work.

On scorching morning back in July, Bea Gaddy sat in a plastic chair on the gently sloping sidewalk outside her red-brick Baltimore row house and waited. Under a large tent was a cafeteria-style table covered with loaves of bread and cartons of ice-cold milk and orange juice. Inside the house was the usual array of sandwiches and canned goods, as well as an unexpected treat: several boxes of frozen imitation crabmeat that someone had dropped off.

She didn't have to wait long. Soon, shirtless, sweaty, bedraggled men rounded the corner onto North Collington Avenue and staggered toward the food pantry Gaddy operated out of her home. They were joined by young women who cradled babies wearing nothing but diapers and tugged along weary, sleepy-eyed young children. The crowd featured young and old, black and white, regulars and first timers. They were high on heroin, drunk before noon, and distracted by conversations they carried on with themselves. They were also sober, grateful, and friendly. Whatever their physical and mental conditions, whatever the reasons that brought them there, they had one thing on common: They were hungry.

Another day in East Baltimore, another meal at Bea Gaddy's. "How you doing, Miss Bea?" the regulars said. Gaddy, dressed in her usual black pants and white blouse, waved back with her free hand. She held a cell phone in the other, and it rang every few minutes with a new question, a new crisis. For hours, she fixed one problem after another by phone and with the help of the volunteers around her. Did you get enough food, sweetheart? Take another. . . . Sir, sir, don't smoke around here, please. There's children. . . . How many babies you got at home, dear? Four? Good Lord, somebody pack her a bag. . . . Baby, you like crab? I got some imitation crabmeat today. . . . Who's that boy kissing on that girl next door? How old is she? Oh, Lord, call protective services on that child's mother. . . . This man needs a shirt. Would somebody run inside and get him a shirt? . . . Jimmy, you were just here. Go on now. Leave something for the others.

This was the Bea Gaddy that many people never saw, a woman for whom helping others was a way of life. In addition to the food pantry, she operated a shelter for women and children, a furniture bank, and a program that refurbished abandoned row houses for impoverished families. A cancer victim's center and a drug rehabilitation house were slated to be next. In August, she became an ordained minister, so that she could marry and bury the poor at no cost. Her outreach work in the inner city represented a very personal mission, because the broken lives that she encountered were often reminiscent of her own struggles. She had been homeless, unemployed, and hungry. And once she had a home of her own, she thought nothing of sharing it with strangers living on the street.

Many of her admirers, though, associated her with a single day of the year: Thanksgiving. Who could blame them? Her holiday feast for the poor became legendary. It grew from an intimate gathering for a few dozen needy neighbors to a sprawling all-day affair, with as many as 20,000 people, on the grounds of a nearby middle school. The event made Gaddy, whom volunteers called Shorty (she was five feet, three inches tall), almost larger than life. Known as the Mother Teresa of Baltimore and Saint Bea, she was named one of former president George Bush's "thousand points of light" and once selected Family Circle magazine's woman of the year. Recently, she was featured in Fast Company.

This Thanksgiving won't be the same in Baltimore. For the first time in 20 years, Bea Gaddy won't be around to serve turkey and all the trimmings. On October 3, she died of complications from breast cancer. She was 68.

Born Into Poverty

A half hour before her funeral began, New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore was standing room only. The service, which lasted three hours, was a reminder of the astonishing number of people affected by Gaddy's work and the dramatic course her life had taken -- from abject poverty to a seat on the Baltimore city council. Among the several thousand mourners were homeless men and women who arrived carrying bags of their belongings as well as state and city leaders, including Maryland's governor and lieutenant governor and Baltimore's mayor (who had ordered that city flags be flown at half-mast the day she died). As one of the speakers remarked, "Only Bea Gaddy could call a meeting like this."

Beatrice Frankie Fowler was born in Wake Forest, North Carolina, outside Raleigh, in 1933. Her family was dirt poor, but she used to say she didn't have time to worry about the Great Depression because she was too busy avoiding her violent, alcoholic stepfather. When there wasn't enough food, he used to throw her and her brother out of the house. As she wrote on the bio that appears on her Web site, "I know what it's like to hunt for food in a garbage can and eat out of a dumpster. As a homeless person, I did it for years. I was left to fend for myself as a child, raped before I was a teenager, and tormented by the bonds of poverty."

By her mid-twenties, she was a high-school dropout and twice-divorced mother of five. For years, she went on and off welfare, working as a maid and a nurse's assistant, trying to get her life on track. Desperate to escape her troubled past, she moved to New York and then, in 1964, to Baltimore, where she befriended an attorney in her neighborhood named Bernard Pitts. He did for her what she would later do for so many: He saw her potential. With his support, she earned a college degree and became a social worker. Her passion, she realized, was helping others. She didn't want them to suffer as she had. "When I was in junior high," says Cynthia Campbell, 42, Gaddy's daughter, "I remember the house filling up with boots one week because she had organized everybody to donate winter boots for kids." Later, she collected toys at Christmas for poor children and arranged for kids in the community to attend summer camp.

The Thanksgiving event started in 1981. After federal funding cuts eliminated her job, Gaddy found herself back on food stamps. With $290 she won on a 50-cent lottery ticket -- a longtime habit that became an unorthodox method of fund-raising for her organization -- she bought enough food to feed 39 of her equally hungry neighbors. It was then that she decided to start a community kitchen for the needy run by the needy. She begged grocers for donations and gave away whatever she collected.

In the early years, the Thanksgiving event took place on the sidewalk in front of her home, where Gaddy did much of the cooking herself. Eventually, she moved to a nearby middle school to accommodate thousands of diners. She even sent meals and used winter clothing to shelters in North Carolina, Virginia, and New Jersey. Ever-resourceful and doggedly persistent, Gaddy relied on an expanding network of donors: Shady Brook Farms, in Mt. Crawford, Virginia donated 1,000 or more turkeys; local grocers supplied the sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and green beans; and the Maryland Correctional Facility in Hagerstown did the cooking. Without these and many more contributions, Gaddy estimated that the bill would be several hundred thousand dollars.

In the weeks following Gaddy's death, people called her home every day with the same question: "What about Thanksgiving?" They were relieved to hear that Bea Gaddy's tradition would go on.

The Next Generation

On a cool afternoon in mid-November, Cynthia Campbell and Sandra Briggs are sitting in the front room of their mother's house, poring over the details that go into serving Thanksgiving dinner to thousands of people. They need color-coded badges and ribbons for hundreds of volunteers. They need a final inventory of the canned goods. They need a rental van and driver for the meals headed out-of-state. The list goes on and on. What they really need is more hours in the day.

Both daughters have helped out in the past, but they've never been this involved. Their mother had her career, and they had theirs: Campbell works in human resources for the Army at Fort Meade, Maryland; Briggs, 44, is an administrative assistant at the Maryland Department of Transportation. Since Gaddy's death, Campbell has been coming to the North Collington house after work and staying until ten at night. Briggs has taken a leave from her job; she works at the food pantry every day. "Just because Bea is gone to heaven doesn't mean what she was doing here stops," she says.

Fortunately, the daughters are not alone. Gaddy's longtime volunteers are determined to continue their friend's work. They still show up to collect food and clothing and then give it away to the few hundred people who come by for lunch. Norma Thompson was Gaddy's hairdresser and close friend for 20 years. Eventually, Thompson became her chief organizer for Thanksgiving, so she knows whom to call and what needs to be done. This year's meal could be one of the biggest, she says, because it's being seen as a tribute to Gaddy, on the 20th anniversary of the event.

Even if the feast goes off as planned, everyone involved knows the organization won't be the same without Gaddy. For one thing, no one could match her dedication. She used to sleep in her clothes by the front window so that she would hear if somebody knocked, looking for shelter. On cold nights she would drive around with a friend looking under bridges for homeless people to take in. "This was her life," says Briggs. "There was no downtime."

Like any family business or small organization that loses its founder and principle visionary, the Bea Gaddy Family Center faces a transition burdened with critical questions: Who will step in and lead? And where does the organization go from here? Briggs and Campbell are determined to carry on their mother's legacy, and they're approaching that daunting task as a team. "It's Bea times two," says Campbell. "Sandra is the sweet part of her personality, and I'm like the tough Bea who was behind the scenes making sure everything got done."

Part of the challenge will be making the organization better organized. For all of her street smarts, Gaddy wasn't a meticulous businesswoman. There was an improvisational element to her work, a desire to do whatever it took to help people, whether that meant giving them the money in her pocket or hosting them for the night. Record keeping wasn't her top priority. She was behind in filing her tax forms, and her filing system was primitive, consisting of notebook after notebook of hand-written lists of donors and recipients.

But her daughters aren't simply organizing the operation and realizing her shortcomings. They're also discovering the breadth of their mother's work, which goes beyond what they already knew. "How did she make sure this family could pay its utility bill and that one could pay for a funeral?" says Campbell. "How did she put out all these fires? When did she sleep? There are so many questions I have for her."

The answers may be closer at hand than anyone thinks, says Patsy Rogers, a postal clerk who started volunteering for Gaddy more than 10 years ago. "The marvelous thing about Miss Gaddy is that she was always teaching and teaching, even when you didn't realize that's what she was doing. Now that she's gone, all of us remember something she taught us."

In which case, the work will go on, thanks to Bea Gaddy.

Donations to Bea Gaddy's charities can be sent to:
The Bea Gaddy Fund, P.O. Box 38501, Baltimore, MD. 21241
Non-perishable food items can be dropped off seven days a week at 140 North Collington Avenue in Baltimore from 7 AM until midnight.

Chuck Salter (csalter@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer. Learn more about the Bea Gaddy Family Centers (www.beagaddy.com) on the Web.

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