This Thanksgiving, over 200 residents of Gravesend’s Marlboro Houses will have a turkey roasting in the oven thanks to the efforts and generosity of one woman: Sara Lee McWhite.
McWhite, who grew up at the Brooklyn housing project and still lives there, has been giving away turkeys to the houses’ neediest residents around Thanksgiving Day for the last 16 years. She also gives out toys to the development’s underprivileged children at Christmastime.
Though officially a community coordinator for the New York City Housing Authority, McWhite runs these events on her own.
Nearly two decades ago, McWhite and her family were down on their luck, but two neighbors made sure that the McWhites still ate a Thanksgiving dinner. As soon as her family got back on its feet, McWhite decided that, from then on, she would be the one to make sure that those who needed a holiday meal would have one, even if they couldn’t afford it.
The turkeys cost over $3,000. McWhite was able to buy them with donations that she solicited from Taconic Investment Partners, who are major landowners in nearby Coney Island, local councilman Dominic Recchia, Jr. and the owners of Astroland and the Wonder Wheel. She matches their contributions out of her own pocket, she said.
McWhite gave out the frozen birds last Thursday. Residents lined up outside the development’s senior center in the cold and rain, pushcarts at their side.
Those residents with the lowest incomes, such as those on welfare, on social security or with low-paying jobs, were eligible to receive turkeys, said Jose Espinal, the housing manager, who helped McWhite manage the event. From those, over 200 were chosen at random to be on the list of recipients.
McWhite and her handful of helpers gave away 225 birds, each weighing about 14 pounds.
“I give the big turkeys, not the little ones!” she shouted to the lined-up residents. “I have no small turkeys.”
With over 1700 units in the public housing complex, there weren’t enough turkeys for everyone. Many residents who didn’t understand the selection process waited on line only to find out that they weren’t on the list, and they were sent away wheeling empty pushcarts.
“I only have so much money and I did what I could,” McWhite said. “Now you see why I wish I had a million dollars.”