RICHMOND -- Between bites of pumpkin pie, Andrea Bates reflected on what she has to be thankful for in the middle of hard times.

"God is good, and I get reminded of that when I see how people have opened their hearts to help me," she said.

Bates, 61, and her 42-year-old daughter, Gracia, know about struggle. When her husband died of prostate cancer nine months ago, Bates didn't know how she would carry on.

When the rent on her San Leandro apartment went up $200 per month soon after, she and her daughter found themselves homeless for the first time.

But not all was lost. On the eve of Thanksgiving, the two women enjoyed turkey, cranberry sauce and other fixings at the Bay Area Rescue Mission in Richmond, where they have beds thanks to the mission's homeless shelter program.

Chuck Lee, 13, pours water for a diner at the Bay Area Rescue Mission’s annual Thanksgiving dinner in Richmond, Calif., on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013.
Chuck Lee, 13, pours water for a diner at the Bay Area Rescue Mission's annual Thanksgiving dinner in Richmond, Calif., on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

"The people here are such a blessing," Bates said, a crisp pink bow tied in her hair. "They treat us with respect and help us get by."

More than 200 people crammed into the mission's dining hall the morning of Nov. 27 for traditional Thanksgiving trimmings and a festive atmosphere that included holiday decorations and microphone-amplified testimonials from religious leaders and homeless people who have been helped by the institution. The mission has helped the area's needy since 1965, and since 2000 has provided thousands of Thanksgiving meals during the holiday week, said the Rev. John Anderson, the mission's president and CEO. The routine is nearly the same during the week of Christmas, with the added flair of wrapped gifts.

"What we do is year-round, but during the holiday season it's especially important to ramp up our services to help people who are in a tough place in their lives," said Anderson, who strode the aisles of the Thanksgiving feast chatting with diners.

Anderson knows the torment of being homeless on the holidays all too well. In 1982, at age 29, Anderson was sleeping in alleys and parking garages in San Diego before he found refuge in the mission there. He had lost a good job and found himself on the streets, powerless to the lure of an all-consuming cocaine addiction.

"I was dead at the time," Anderson said. "I had no hope."

Instead, his life began to turn around during that holiday season of 1982, and he got clean and began ascending the management ladder at the mission in Richmond. ¿He has been the director and CEO for more than a decade.

The mission, one of 32 nonprofit agencies participating in the Share the Spirit fundraising program this holiday season, provides shelter for up to 70 women and children any given night, job training, counseling services and meals year-round. But during the holidays, the efforts, and the donations, ramp up.

More than 500 volunteers donate time and work every November and December, Anderson said. More than 2,000 donated turkeys come in, many from large corporate donors.

During the Christmas celebrations, kids enjoy magic acts and other entertainment along with the food and presents.

"We have a man who does a strong man routine, bending rebar and rolling up a steel frying pan like a burrito," Anderson said. "The kids love it."

Hope, food and good cheer were in abundant supply on Nov. 27. Paper turkey decorations adorned the long white dining tables, where rows of men, women and children made new friends and enjoyed a meal. Volunteer servers, many of them teens, brought plates of food and cups of red punch to the diners.

Chaplain Steven Robinson stood tall at the doorway, greeting everyone with a cheerful "how you doin' today," and a handshake or hug.

"Every day is a great day to be nice, but the holidays are special," Robinson said. "Seeing all these smiles, it does something good to your heart."

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/SFBaynewsrogers.

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The Share the Spirit campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, benefits nonprofit agencies in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. To help, clip the coupon accompanying this story or go to https://volunteer.truist.com/vccc/donate.
Readers with questions, and corporations interested in making large contributions, may contact the Volunteer Center of the East Bay, which administers the fund, at 925-472-5760.