Thanksgiving Day at Nischelle Buffalow’s house in Chesapeake is a sight to behold.
Assembly lines of people open cans and cut cakes and wash dishes. Dozens of volunteers man grills, smokers and deep fryers.
After all, they’ve got 36 turkeys, 10 hams and even more roast beef to cook. Not to mention 50 pounds of fresh mashed potatoes. Plus yams, corn, sweet peas, collards and green beans for 400 people.
For seven years, Buffalow and her family and friends have cooked a massive Thanksgiving dinner for the South Norfolk community. It’s grown, and today the dinner draws in hundreds of city residents. Volunteers deliver even more meals to seniors across Hampton Roads who can’t make the trip.
“We don’t want anyone left without a home-cooked meal for Thanksgiving,” Buffalow said. “It’s just good to share some of the joy.”
In 2010, Buffalow noticed a need in the community but wasn’t aware of any soup kitchens or churches in Chesapeake that served a hot meal on Thanksgiving. Her neighborhood is in a “food desert,” she said, where the nearest grocery store is relatively inaccessible by foot because of busy highway traffic.
So Buffalow decided to host her own community Thanksgiving. She turned to her family: Would they help?
The first year, 25 people came. The next: 40. In 2012, more than 150 showed up.
Even in years when it has rained, the community has turned out for Buffalow’s dinner. Volunteers come from across Hampton Roads. When it’s time to eat, people gather under tents set up on the plot of land next to Buffalow’s house at 19th and B streets.
Buffalow noticed some of the children who came to dinner one year didn’t have warm coats and gloves, so now she collects gently used clothing, new socks and blankets and gives those out, too.
Buffalow’s family paid out of pocket for the entire meal the first two years. Now, donors including private businesses and churches contribute turkeys, hams, paper products, desserts and anything else they can. The event costs about $3,500, and Buffalow’s family and friends typically pitch in about $1,000 of their own money.
Planning starts in September, but the crunch comes the week of Thanksgiving.
On Tuesday, people streamed in and out of the house, dropping off donations. Dozens of frozen turkeys sat in boxes in the backyard, thawing under a tarp. The smoker was fired up – a couple of hams already inside.
Nearly everything gets cooked in the backyard and in Buffalow’s kitchen, on her 10-year-old stove. Even the dozens of turkeys and hams are grilled, fried and smoked on site.
“The poor little oven will be tired,” she said. “I’m wishing for a double oven one day.”
Buffalow comes from a family that’s given back to the community for years. Her grandparents lived in the Crestwood area and would take neighborhood kids to the beach and host cookouts in the backyard, said Delena Buffalow, Nischelle’s mother.
Nischelle’s grandmother would call kids off the street, telling them to come eat.
“She gets it from her grandparents,” Delena Buffalow said.
Years ago, Victor Winters was working as a police officer for Old Dominion University when his sergeant invited him to help out at Buffalow’s dinner.
He said he was blown away by the camaraderie. There were no boundaries, he said, and the crowd was diverse: black, white, young, old, all different religions. Police officers, sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and the mayor participate, too, he said.
“It was just a lot of love everywhere,” he said. “They came out for one cause. That’s beautiful.”
Winters has volunteered every year since and said Buffalow has deeply affected his outlook on community service. The two will talk for hours at a time about how to reach more people in the community.
“I just cannot stop helping this woman,” he said. “She has changed my direction.”