ROCKVILLE – Jeannie’s only daughter sat next to her Tuesday, during a pre-Thanksgiving lunchtime at a Maryland detention center for teens. Metal tins brimmed with shredded turkey meat, ham and macaroni and cheese, and traces of saffron and pepper filled the air.
This is the third year in a row that the teenage girl has been in a juvenile center during the holiday. Years ago, although she is a vegetarian, Jeannie used to cook a turkey, mashed potatoes, corn and pumpkin pie — all her daughter's favorites.
But now, the two eat on paper plates and sit on mismatched chairs at a small round table decked with orange and tan balloons in the multipurpose room at the Alfred D. Noyes Children’s Center.
“I’m just glad to have her here,” said the teenage girl holding her mother’s hand against the khaki pants she wears with a yellow polo as part of her uniform.
“I was nervous that I wasn’t going to get to see her this Thanksgiving, since I didn’t hear about the event until last weekend,” said Jeannie who drove from Gaithersburg to see her daughter, who has been at Noyes since last week. “But this is the nicest staff and it really shows me that the kids are important to them, which stands out more than anything.”
In order to avoid identifying her daughter, Capital News Service is using only Jeannie’s first name. The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services does not release the identities of youth in its facilities.
For the last six years, Lead4Life Inc., a service and advocacy organization that helps youth and adults in the criminal justice system, has donated a free Thanksgiving meal at Noyes, a co-ed detention center in Rockville that provides services to delinquents 14 to 19 years old who are waiting be placed in a treatment facility or for a court hearing for crimes like robbery, narcotics possession or burglary.
"The focus is really on the families being able to come in,” said Noyes Superintendent Antoinette McLeod. “It’s about telling [the youth] that you’re not home with your family, but you can still make the best of a situation despite being here.”
This is one of the only times of the year that the juveniles get to have a meal with their family outside of structured visitation hours.
“It is an opportunity for the kids to actually have a Thanksgiving meal with their families,” said Jennifer Gauthier, founder and director of Lead4Life. “We really want to embrace the importance of family and [want the] youth to know not only does family care about them, but people in the community.”
All of the food for the meal is purchased with money donated to Lead4Life, typically by people who work at local service agencies or those who want to give back around the holidays, Gauthier said.
While the facility can hold up to 41 males and 16 females, 37 teenagers lived at Noyes at mealtime Tuesday. The Lead4Life staff cooked enough food for 100 people, so there was plenty left over for seconds.
“It’s a full-course meal with all of the Thanksgiving servings you would have for a regular Thanksgiving dinner,” McLeod said.
According to Gauthier, the spread resembles “what an African American Thanksgiving meal would look like.” Dishes like collard greens, turkey, ham, sweet potatoes, stuffing and pumpkin pie were lined up on a table under a basketball hoop.
Spanish food items, like empanadas, and rice and beans, were also prepared for Spanish families who might be there as well, she said.
“I’m really grateful for this meal,” said one girl whose mother was unable to come because she had just gotten out of the hospital.
“But I consider the Noyes staff my family,” said the teenager who had been detained in the center several times since she was 13, and has currently been at Noyes for three months.
The average length of stay at Noyes is 25 days, according to a Department of Juvenile Services report.
“A lot of kids come from homes that don’t have enough money for Thanksgiving, so it’s nice for their family to come,” the teen said.
Any family member or guardian who is approved for visitation could attend the meal, and the teens were allowed to have up to three guests, according to McLeod.
“This is the most amount of people we’ve had,” said McLeod who has been superintendent for a year and a half.
For the first time this year, the center held a raffle for a Thanksgiving meal basket for a family member to take home.
“The staff at Noyes wanted to be more involved in the process this year so they donated food items for a basket,” McLeod said.
“Things like canned goods, so even though they came here and had lunch with their son or daughter, they can actually take home a basket.”
But Jeannie was just hoping to take home her daughter, who cried as she said goodbye to her mother.