In the early morning hours on Thanksgiving, volunteers began to gather outside Lucianna’s Steakhouse in Waldorf, Md. with one goal in mind — to feed as many people as possible.
The Greek word ‘philotimo,’ which means “help a friend out,” was alive and well on the holiday as 145 volunteers worked throughout the day to fill trays with traditional Thanksgiving fare and piled them high on the restaurant’s bar in anticipation of handing them out.
However, there was one person noticeably absent — Iossif “Joe” Mario Gressis, who unexpectedly passed away several weeks prior.
Emotions ran high as many people stepped up to make good on Gressis’ commitment to share his love of food with the Charles County community and carry on the legacy of the late entrepreneur.
What began as a small way to give back to the community has expanded over the years and has become a beloved tradition for the Gressis family, who give up their holiday so that others may have one.
“Part of his legacy is helping people. [It’s] big, but he didn’t mean it to be big,” Luci Gressis said of her husband.
On the way to the first Thanksgiving event held without the “maestro of the kitchen,” Luci Gressis had to remind herself of what the day was truly about.
“Don’t let me forget the reason we are here — to help people,” she said.
Just before the commencement of the day’s busy agenda, Luci Gressis was presented with a proclamation declaring November 25, 2021, in Charles County as Iossif “Joe” Mario Gressis Day by Charles County Commissioner President Reuben B. Collins, II.
With the recent passing of her son, operations fell upon Gressis’ mother, Asimina Gressis, who is affectionately known to many as ‘Momma Gressis.’ Taking the leadership role was both overwhelming and emotional, but she was determined to continue to do what Joe had set out to do several years ago — make sure no one went hungry on Thanksgiving.
“[Momma Gressis] knew it was going to be difficult, but she wanted to make sure Joe lives on,” Heather Bauer said.
Bauer helped coordinate the effort to feed the Charles County community, which included recruiting volunteers. Bauer took dozens of calls from people wanting to volunteer as a way to honor Joe Gressis.
“Joe was an amazing person in the community and I wanted to do whatever I could to help,” Bauer said.
This year boasted the largest volunteer turnout since its inception in 2015 and Bauer couldn’t turn anyone away who wanted to help, she said.
Volunteers from all walks of life and locations tirelessly worked to serve food, box-up meals, and distribute them to those who showed up to collect a hot Thanksgiving dinner.
Some who offered to help this year were previous customers during last year’s event, according to Chris Clay, the supply manager for Gressis’ many restaurants.
Others are long-term volunteers like Tereena and Tret Little, who had volunteered three times before.
“Joe was such a giving person,” the couple said. “We would rather be here than at home eating,” they went on to say.
It also brought in some new volunteers who wanted to devote their Thanksgiving to the cause. One such person was Charles County resident, Nicole Miles.
“[I’m] really blessed to serve the community,” Miles said.
However, volunteers looking to lend a helping hand weren’t limited to just the adults. This year children over the age of nine had the opportunity to contribute as a way of teaching a valuable lesson on the importance of community and volunteering.
Jaxson Howell, age 10, was among one of the event’s 22 young volunteers and was tasked with running meals out to cars.
When asked what his favorite part of volunteering was, Howell said it was, “seeing the smiles on people’s faces once they get their meals.”
In addition to its many volunteers, establishments across Charles County stepped up to contribute to the mission of feeding the community. Charles Street Bakery donated 65 pies and Bobby Rucci, the owner of the Italian restaurant, Rucci’s, supported the cause with a generous monetary donation.
Given the community’s show of support and Joe Gressis’ recent passing, his wife, Luci, wants to carry on the tradition of feeding the community for her family. She is hoping that with some help from other local restaurants, they can continue Joe’s passionate cause in the future.