How One Mom Is Providing Thanksgiving Dinner for Thousands of Families in Need

The Scary Mommy Thanksgiving Project helps families in need like the James' of Oneida, N.Y., who lost their home after a devastating flood, afford a Thanksgiving meal full of fresh food.
The children of Paul and Rebecca James, along with the couple’s future daughter-in-law, smile on Thanksgiving Day, 2013. (Photo courtesy Rebecca James.)

They were making it work.

Raising a family with seven children would strain most budgets but Paul James, a meat clerk at a grocery store, and Rebecca James, a nonprofit agency employee, were managing just fine. The blended family — the couple had children from previous relationships before they married and had two more together — lived “on a tight but functional budget,” Rebecca told me. “The bills were paid, with not a ton for extras, but it was not too bad.”

And then came the flood.

In the summer of 2013, the James’ apartment was one of some 200 homes in the city of Oneida, N.Y. that filled with water from the nearby Oneida Creek. After the waters receded, the James family found much of what they owned destroyed while their apartment itself was contaminated by mold. They spent weeks in a hotel, subsisting on sandwiches and cheap, processed foods before they moved again, this time to a cramped trailer.

They struggled to pay the bills, living paycheck to paycheck, and the coming holiday season promised to be a grim one … until Rebecca found a ray of hope. She learned of a charity project run by a popular blogger offering $50 gift certificates for Thanksgiving grocery shopping to families in need.

“We went back to working through putting our world back together, and a few days before the holiday our mail simply made my day,” Rebecca would later write in an email to the project’s founder, Scary Mommy blogger Jill Smokler. “As I sifted through the items, there was the envelope from Scary Mommy. There was a truly bright moment in our rather dark looking holidays, and the meal we created with that gift was one of the best we had ever enjoyed.”

Started in 2011, the Scary Mommy Thanksgiving Project has provided aid to more than 4,500 families. It began when Smokler, a Maryland mother of three, realized that so many of the messages readers were leaving on her humorous website were those of need, sharing their hardships and voicing concerns about how they would feed their families. So she decided to do something about it, asking her readers to donate to an effort that quickly grew larger than Smokler ever imagined.

“I am not somebody who does spreadsheets and has great planning mind,” an admittedly overwhelmed Smokler told me when I first interviewed her for ABC News in 2011. “I ended up handwriting everything on index cards. It took over my entire house.”

Today, the Thanksgiving Project is a bit more sophisticated. Smokler formed a nonprofit, Scary Mommy Nation, to run the project. Last year, the organization raised over $160,000 in a matter of weeks to benefit about 3,000 families, including the James clan.

A portion of proceeds from Scary Mommy’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays, an e-book, will benefit The Scary Mommy Thanksgiving Project. (Simon & Schuster)

This year, Smokler wants to see the Thanksgiving Project grow even bigger, so she’s asking businesses to partner with her in exchange for various forms of promotion on her highly-trafficked site. She’s also putting out an e-book and a portion of the proceeds will benefit next year’s Thanksgiving Project. Scary Mommy’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays, a collection of funny essays, recipes and holiday advice, includes dozens of talented contributors and can be pre-ordered for $2.99 on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or iBooks before it debuts on Nov. 17.

Full disclosure: I am one of the contributors. Please buy the book anyway.

Rebecca James said her family will be applying for help from the project again this year, but she knows that there are many others in even greater need. If they don’t get aid from the project this year, “we will do what we always have tried to do and make it work.”
Thanksgiving, she added, isn’t about the food “but about the memories you are able to enjoy together.”

She’s right, of course, but I still hope there’s enough Thanksgiving Project funding to help the James family, along with all the other families that apply. Making great memories is easier with a full belly.


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