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Capturing Thanksgiving Spirit With Mariachis and Soup Ladles

Through acts of kindness great and small, Americans share with neighbors and strangers

IN a parking lot crammed with picnic tables, 2,000 Californians will sit elbow to elbow. Palm trees will sway overhead. A Mariachi band will spin a sandal-tapping rhythm.

This scene, which will take place Thursday outside the Casa Garcia restaurant in Anaheim, bears little resemblance to early snow-encrusted Thanksgivings.

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But like that long-ago celebration, the food at this community feast will be plentiful and free, and everybody welcomed. Before sunset, 20,000 people - blacks, Anglos, Hispanics, and Asians, rich and poor - will snake through the buffet line.

Across the nation, from a Chicago cruise for the elderly, to a native American festival in New York City, and a high school food drive in Aurora, Colo., millions of Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving Day by volunteering their time and resources, or by seeking the benevolence of strangers.

But whatever side of the ladle they find themselves on, many who venture out on this holiday will return home richer - reminded, perhaps, that small acts of kindness can build strong communities.

A helping hand

''We all came from different parts of the world from diverse backgrounds,'' says Elaine Chao, president of the nation's largest charity, the United Way. ''We came to this country with nothing to strike up a new way of life. Without the help of strangers, we could never have survived.''

Indeed, Americans are the world's most zealous volunteers. According to Independent Sector in Washington, some 89 million Americans donate about 19 billion hours to good causes every year. Although some statistics suggest the level of charity is declining, some groups estimate that as many as 15 million Americans will donate time or money on Thanksgiving. Some will even be turned away for lack of gravy to dollop.

This spirit of community service is not lost on Frank Garcia, the proprietor of Casa Garcia. After migrating to United States from Mexico as a young man, he built his restaurant into a neighborhood landmark. Nine years ago, he decided to give something back by hosting his now-famous Thanksgiving dinner. Carried on today by his son, Frank Jr., it ranks as one of the nation's largest holiday sit-downs.

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Across the desert in Phoenix, a similar melding of cultures will take place Nov. 22 at the Family School, a private preschool. There, children of Asian and Mexican descent will form a circle with Anglo kids for a ''Friendship Feast.''

In a city where personal isolation is the norm, and many people are transplants from other regions, the Family School aims to be an oasis of community by enrolling an ethnic cross-section of metropolitan Phoenix.

Duck and baked fish

Traditional Thanksgiving stories, with their emphasis on Pilgrims and native Americans, are too narrow for the school's multicultural student body, says Susan Cedar, the school's director. Some children, she explains, eat duck for Thanksgiving, or baked fish.

To stick solely to turkey, she says, is to lose sight of the real essence of Thanksgiving. ''It's not so much that the Pilgrims came or native Americans were here,'' she says, ''but that groups of people helped each other survive.''

Stone soup

Rather than serving a traditional turkey meal for the preschoolers, teachers and parents will help the children prepare ''stone soup.'' The idea, Ms. Cedar explains, comes from a folk tale of a wanderer who comes to a town, asking for food. No one person in the village has enough to feed the wanderer alone, but by pooling their resources, she says, ''they have this wonderful, rich, and exciting soup.''

While the Southwest celebrates Thanksgiving with a cross-cultural twist, many cities to the East are sticking to more traditional observances.

In Boston, at the sixth annual ''Reggie Lewis Turkey Giveaway,'' started by the late Boston Celtics captain, some 50 volunteers distributed 735 turkeys to needy families and senior citizens who had been selected in a lottery.

The giveaway, which Mr. Lewis began with his wife, Donna Harris-Lewis, has become a much-anticipated Thanksgiving tradition in this city of brick chimneys.

''This was just [Reggie's] way of showing thanks for the life he was blessed with,'' Ms. Harris-Lewis said of her late husband as turkey-toting citizens crowded around.

Irene Borgesson, who plans to squeeze 14 family members around her holiday table, couldn't keep from smiling as she waited in line to claim her bird.

''I never win anything,'' she says, ''but lo and behold, I got a letter that said I'd won.''

Fifth-grader Marcus Jones, who also took home a turkey, enjoyed some assistance from Celtics players Dino Radja and Sherman Douglas, who were on hand to help. ''I'll be here every time they ask me,'' Mr. Radja said.

Also in Boston, Mayor Tom Menino donned an apron Sunday and served a Thanksgiving feast to some 500 homeless and poor at the Kingston House, a haven for the homeless run by the Boston Rescue Mission.

On Saturday, the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company turned a vacant floor at its Boston headquarters into a holiday gift-bag giveaway. Employees assembled sacks of donated food and turned them over to a local charitable group, Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly, which will distribute them on Thanksgiving Day to elderly shut-ins.

''You never know where you are going to be tomorrow,'' says John Amico, a 39-year Hancock employee. ''This shows there are people around here willing to do something for you.''

Cornucopia of volunteers

According to Goodwill organizers in Boston, so many volunteers have shown up, they have had to turn many away. ''There is nothing worse than having too many volunteers and not enough work,'' says Dan Correia, a Goodwill coordinator in Boston. ''I just wish they'd call in August.''

In Atlanta, one of the highlights of the holiday season is the Atlanta Apartment Association's mammoth drive to help feed the city's hungry and homeless. This ''Food-A-Thon'' began in March and culminated this week, as members carted the donations they had collected to the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

Tamela Coval, publisher of the Atlanta Apartment Guide, says participation in the Food-A-Thon is at an all-time high because individual apartment complexes have begun to compete vigorously in hopes of collecting the most donations.

Some buildings host pool parties and ask guests to bring food; others sponsor carwashes or go door to door on Halloween for ''Trick or Cans.'' One complex refuses to let cars in or out of its parking lot unless the driver donates a can or $1.

This year, the Food-A-Thon hauled in more than 3 million items, a mass of goodwill that lasts until February and ranks this program among the nation's most prolific local food drives. Already, Ms. Coval says, members are planning to take the program ''coast to coast.''

Beating cynicism

''It's encouraging in times of such cynicism and negativity ... that we have tens of thousands of people involved in different ways to feed the hungry,'' says Bill Bolling, executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. ''None of us would have guessed that an association like the Atlanta Apartment Association would touch so many people.''

Meanwhile, in Chicago, the Council on Aging and the city of Chicago plan to celebrate Thanksgiving in grand style. About 30 volunteers will don black tie and tailcoats and climb aboard the cruise ship Odyssey to serve a turkey lunch to 600 low-income elderly people. There will be music and dancing as the ship plies the chilly waters of Lake Michigan.

New York City played host on Saturday to the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers, who put on a Thanksgiving celebration of native American storytelling, song, and dance called ''Coyote Walks Around.'' Designed for children, the celebration allowed young New Yorkers to test their feet in traditional Indian dances and create their own traditional crafts. All receipts for the event were contributed to the Thunderbird Scholarship Fund for native American students.

Also in New York, the Long Beach Department of Recreation and the city of Long Beach sponsored a two-mile ''Turkey Trot'' road race for children. Everyone who raced got a T-shirt and the winners in each category received free turkeys.

At the Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, Colo., students and teachers teamed up for the eighth year with local businesses to collect and prepare 180 baskets full of food for needy families in Denver. And in a twist on the usual Thanksgiving charity event, homeless residents of Genesis I, a village of geodesic domes in Los Angeles, sponsored their own free Thanksgiving dinner for the volunteers and contributors who made the project possible.

Remembering the vegetarians

There was more compensation, of sorts, over the weekend in Frederick, Md. Here, the animal-rights group United Poultry Concerns hosted a vegetarian Thanksgiving, complete with a tofu turkey, plenty of veggies, homemade puddings, and dishes made with a substance called meat-wheat.

Instead of lying belly-up on the table, the only turkeys here were honored guests. Two turkey hens, Abigail and Snowflake, roamed the grounds and clucked at the knees of their human friends - proving, perhaps, that Thanksgiving means many things to many creatures.

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