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story.lead_photo.caption For close to a decade, Luke Gilbert, family and young-adult minister at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in Little Rock, has been organizing a Thanksgiving-basket drive for St. Francis House clients in need. The support for this drive through the years has been gratifying to him. “People have been blessed on Thanksgiving and don’t want other people to not feel the same kind of blessings they do,” he says. - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

Luke Gilbert, the family and young-adult minister at Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, believes in community. And he believes in the role of the church -- whose outreach tagline is "love comes first" -- as "a staging area to help our community."

That's why Gilbert, seven years ago, began spearheading the assembly and delivery of the yearly Thanksgiving baskets that go to clients of St. Francis House Ministries, which serves those in need via social services, a veteran's re-entry program and a health clinic.

The joy Gilbert, 46, gets from this undertaking is "seeing love in action ... people seeing a need and meeting that need and sharing their blessings."

The meeting of that need began when Gilbert, who'd been helping to do the Christmas baskets for St. Francis House, decided to ask Phyllis Jones, an administrator in the agency's social work department, how he could help with the Thanksgiving baskets.

Her answer: "We don't have Thanksgiving baskets." Nor, she said, did they have the money to pay for those. Gilbert decided to start a drive to come up with some.

He'd planned on 25 Thanksgiving baskets, but did 85 that first year, at a cost of nearly $3,000. He was "amazed to see how quickly people wanted to help" that first year, he says.

"I kept getting extra donations in, so I'd run in and make another box or two," Gilbert says. "So many people love St. Francis House."

This year, basket planning began Oct. 28 with a call for donations of food and money. About 80 baskets for families -- costing roughly $35 apiece -- are prepared, feeding 320 or more people who have had trouble making ends meet. Every cent raised over basket cost is donated directly to St. Francis House to be given to people who are in need and come looking for food on Thanksgiving.

The baskets come complete with a turkey and "all the good starches and some vegetables," Gilbert says. Each year, he tries to throw in "a little lagniappe" [something extra].

Baskets will be assembled with nonperishable contents at Saint Mark's by volunteers on Nov. 19. The next day, the baskets will be taken to St. Francis House, where turkeys and other perishable items will be added. They'll then call the designated recipients come pick up the baskets.

Actually, the food doesn't go into baskets; they go into U-Haul boxes, which they can get in bulk, Gilbert says. "Our kids have decorated the boxes before, and written prayers on them, and left little notes of shared blessings," Gilbert says. "Watching someone as they [went] to get the food -- they saw those prayers and blessings and it became much more real."

Basket bonus

The first year of the drive, Gilbert says that not only did they put together 85 baskets, they also raised close to $2,000 to give to people. Each year, they've been able to contribute at least $1,000 in addition to the baskets.

The Thanksgiving basket drive "has been a major help for us," says Jones, who confirms that "we don't do Thanksgiving ourselves. But they [Gilbert and his fellow volunteers at the church] bring it to us and we give it out to our clients and ... they love it."

She has been working with Gilbert her entire 12 years at St. Francis House, Jones says. "He's a good guy. He ... helps us to set everything up and give it out, so he's in the middle of it. He gets it together for us and everything." Which is especially welcome, seeing as there has been an increase in need, Jones adds; when she started, the agency served up to 80 people a day. Now it serves up to 120 people a day.

Gilbert has been at Saint Mark's 21 years, having come there in 1996 as youth minister. He was once a member of Good Shepherd Episcopal, formerly located on University Avenue and which now lives on as a chapel at St. Francis House.

"We didn't have a tremendous amount of families at Saint Mark's when I began," but since then, their numbers have skyrocketed, he says. He attributes that to the church's involvement with St. Francis House.

He cites a churchwide survey -- "Holy Cow!" -- recently conducted by Saint Mark's. One question asked survey participants what excites them about being in a church community. The answer, "overwhelmingly," was outreach, of which people his age range -- Generation X -- and younger age are really into, Gilbert has found.

Receiving through giving

And Gilbert's own St. Francis House outreach efforts extend far beyond Thanksgiving baskets. He coordinates a fundraising golf scramble for the house; participates in its Angel Tree drive; helps distribute government commodities through the agency; participates in the annual Shrimp Boil at Saint Mark's, also a fundraiser for the house; and collects clothes and toys for its youngest clients.

So just how many hours does Gilbert devote to St. Francis House?

"I couldn't tell you," he replies. "I don't really keep up ... you could say a hundred hours a year. That'd probably be a good number."

Gilbert says his main desire for the Thanksgiving basket drive is that everyone knows how, and where to give. Donations can be taken or sent to 1000 N. Mississippi St., Little Rock, Ark. 72207.

High Profile on 11/12/2017

Print Headline: Episcopal minister helps less fortunate with feast

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