FORT MILL — For 30 years, Tricia Kuhlkin has been helping needy and lonely people find a warm meal and good fellowship on Thanksgiving Day.
Kuhlkin is the main force behind community holiday meals held for the past 30 years at St. Anne Church and now at her parish, St. Philip Neri Church in Fort Mill.
This year’s dinner, the first at St. Philip Neri, was staffed entirely by volunteers and drew more than 120 individuals and families who either could not afford a meal on their own or had no one to be with on Thanksgiving.
Many of them were parishioners. Volunteers also delivered dozens of meals to shut-ins and elderly people who could not attend.
Kuhlkin was pleased because the helpers ranged from high school youths to senior citizens.
“We had probably three volunteers to every person who came in for the meal,” said Oratorian Father John Giuliani, pastor of St. Philip Neri. “It was a chance for people in the parish to all work together — there was no one group who did the bulk of the work. It was a real blessing.”
Kuhlkin said the idea for a community Thanksgiving meal originally came to her when she lived in Rock Hill and belonged to St. Anne in the late 1970s.
She was volunteering with the area Council on Aging and saw how many lonely people there were in the community who needed outreach beyond the meals they received five days a week through Meals on Wheels.
“I realized when people really need the meal and the companionship is during the holiday season,” Kuhlkin said.
“There are many people who are alone for the holidays who need something like this,” she said. “You don’t just have to be financially needy to come to this meal. The greatest loneliness is not being with someone. It can be worse than being hungry.”
Kuhlkin approached Oratorian Father Joseph Wahl, her pastor at the time, with the idea of the Thanksgiving Day meal for the needy.
Although the first group of volunteers had less than a month to organize, the dinner was a success.
The supper has became a parish tradition over the years — this year St. Anne Church served and delivered more than 500 meals.
Kuhlkin also helped organize an annual Christmas Day meal for the needy that is now a collaboration between St. Anne and St. Mary Church in Rock Hill.
Originally from the Bronx, Kuhlkin worked as a flight attendant before she married and had five children. The family moved to South Carolina in the late 1960s because her late husband, Bob, was transferred to Rock Hill.
Bob’s death at age 38 left the young widow struggling to raise five children.
She said her desire to help others in turn helped her recover from her grief.
“When Bob died, I thought my world had ended. But I soon discovered there were people in worse situations,” she said. “Once I started reaching out, I never felt sorry for myself again.”
Kuhlkin has since remarried, and now her husband Bill works with her on many of her volunteer efforts.
In 1988, her impulse to help people led her to establish Pilgrim’s Inn, a Rock Hill non-profit that helps families in need that includes a women’s shelter and daycare for homeless children.
“When we had just started Pilgrim’s Inn, there were days we did not have a nickel to give out, but we always had time to listen,” Kuhlkin said. “Sometimes it’s just important to look somebody in the eye, hold a hand, get them a cup of coffee and give them some hope for tomorrow.”
Father Giuliani has known Kuhlkin for 29 years and served on the board of Pilgrim’s Inn.
“She’s a combination of aspects of Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and Mother Seton,” he said. “She is a person who is just driven to give to people. She is a blessing.”
Kuhlkin said part of her motivation comes from something Mother Teresa said during her 1982 visit to Charleston.
“One of the questions asked of her was why she would come to visit the United States when it was such a rich country, and she replied she hadn’t seen a greater hunger in the world than the hunger of loneliness in this country,” Kuhlkin said.
“We’re a transient society, with people living far from their friends and families,” she said. “Friends are made on the Internet. It’s wonderful to have all the high-tech things we do, but I sometimes think Americans take things to extremes. There’s not a lot of interaction between people anymore.”
Kuhlkin describes herself as a “real simple-faith Catholic” who finds her inspiration to help others in the life of Jesus.
“I don’t know any other way to live,” she said. “It’s such a crazy world and it gets crazier, and I just really think, ‘Why else am I here if it isn’t to reach out?’ Certainly we’re here to reach out to each other. I get up in the morning, and the first thing I ask is, ‘What can I do today for other people?’ ”