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Giving Thanks for the Sunrise

Homeless and formerly homeless mark Thanksgiving at Rising Hope Church.

Thanksgiving is heralded as a time of family festivities with everyone gathered around a table laden with food.

But many Americans, trapped as have nots on a holiday for the haves, do not have that experience. Even so, they find reasons to be thankful in faith, family and each new day.

Three individuals with such stories were found last week at Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church on Route 1 in the Mount Vernon District. Each knows the nagging anxiety of homelessness. Two remain so, while the third, although now in her own home, carries the psychological scars that status inflicts.

Dale Turner, 42, is the mother of three children and once worked as a mail clerk for Underwriters Laboratories on Long Island, N.Y. Then her mother died and she moved to Virginia, where she had other family, in 1993.

"Everything was fine until I got pregnant several years later and my family didn't want anything to do with me. I didn't have any place else to go, so my sister took me to a shelter," she said. "I was homeless for three years. It's not a good feeling."

Turner and two of her children, Brianna, 4, and Christopher, 3, now live in transitional housing in Pinewood Lakes which she obtained through the efforts of New Hope Housing. She does not have custody of her 8-year-old son, Troy.

Turner, who says she cannot work full-time, has income from Social Security and volunteers regularly at Rising Hope Church and Mondloch Shelter, one of the places she lived when homeless. Last week, she served as the receptionist at Rising Hope Church.

"My daughter is enrolled is the Gum Spring Head Start Program and Christopher is in preschool. They both really love it," she said.

"THIS THANKSGIVING I am thankful for having a roof over my head and now having, in addition to my children, such a wonderful church family," Turner said. She has also been instrumental in bring many other parishioners to the church since she's been involved.

"I'm also very thankful that God has allowed me to be able to spread my own personal mission to help others in need. That's what Thanksgiving is to me," she said.

Violet Peterson, in her early 50s, watched her life collapse when everything seemed to be going right. Originally from the Ozark Mountains region, she and her husband came to the Washington metropolitan area when he took a job with the government.

That was three years ago. "Then one morning he pulled a nine millimeter [gun] and threatened to kill me. I just calmly dropped my hands to my side and walked out the door without saying a word. I never went back," Peterson said.

"Domestic violence is one of the most personal forms of terrorism anyone can experience," she said. She also ended up living at a shelter.

"I GOT INVOLVED with Rising Hope because they were the only church to send a van to the shelter to bring people to church. I'm very grateful to the church because I lost my family to drugs and alcohol. Now I've gained a better family then I ever could have imagined," Peterson said.

Before moving to this area, she was a professional translator specializing in sign language. She has worked in California and South America. Today, she remains homeless without a source of income.

"I had to quit my translation work because it requires being on your feet for long periods and I have back problems. Right now I'm volunteering here at Rising Hope and spending the rest of my time seeking employment."

Having left the shelter "for personal security reasons" brought on by her brush with domestic violence, she now moves constantly. "I live pillar to post, day in day out," she said.

Homelessness also remains the life-style of Toni Abdul, 52, who came to this country 31 years ago from his native Kuwait. He is a trained chef with a two-year certificate from Indiana University's School of Hotel and Restaurant Management.

"I was doing very good here. I had a car and lived in an apartment and had my own business in Hybla Valley. Then I went back to Kuwait to visit my family and my home town," Abdul said.

"When I came back, in 1999, I went through a lot of money throwing parties and drinking. One day at the Days Inn in Springfield I went through a window and fell 60 feet. That put me in intensive care for 27 days," he said.

"After I got over that, I overdosed on my medicine and they had to take me to Mount Vernon hospital. I was there for another 28 days. When I came out I had nowhere to go so I ended up in a shelter," Abdul said.

"BUT, SHELTER LIFE is not good. I'd rather be on my own. I have a sleeping bag but the ground gets awfully hard," he said. "I have also been in and out of detox in Chantilly many times." Toni admits that he moves from spot to spot every night.

"But people have the wrong impression of homeless people. They expect the homeless to be walking around in dirty clothes, with long beards and talking to themselves," he said.

"They don't think you could have gone to college and had a profession. I asked a lady the other day at a bus stop if she could give me a dollar because I was homeless. She looked at me and said, 'You don't look homeless.' How am I supposed to look homeless?" Abdul asked.

He is a regular participant at Rising Hope and a cheerleader for its mission. Turner admitted, "Toni has surpassed me as the person who brings the most new people."

Abdul summed up the real reason to give thanks at Thanksgiving even when the material life could be so much better. "I'm always thankful that I'm still here. And, life itself is good. Every day I'm awake life is good," he said.

Rising Hope will be having Thanksgiving day dinner from 12-1:30 p.m. that is open to anyone. It is located at 8605 Engleside Office Park, Alexandria, just off Richmond Highway.

"We will also be distributing more than 200 food baskets to those that are having dinner at home. That will be done on Tuesday to those who have put in their requests," said Laura M. Derby, programs and office administrator, Rising Hope Church.