Thirty years after Ema Haq first opened the doors of Bailey’s Seafood and Grill to the public for free meals on Thanksgiving, the Bangladeshi immigrant once again welcomed the community with warm smiles, handshakes and hugs for a meal together on Thursday.
Haq’s love for Thanksgiving was born when he came to Lafayette in 1983 to study engineering at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Haq opened Bailey’s ten years later, seeing an opportunity to share the good fortune he had enjoyed and to embrace the lonely, the elderly, the infirm and those who can afford the Thanksgiving meal celebrated in American films and television shows.
The businessman cried as he reflected on the milestone anniversary and said he felt blessed to have the opportunity to care for others.
“Nothing makes me happier,” said Haq.
The value of generosity and service to others was instilled in Haq from his parents who, even in their most trying times, always looked for ways to share what they had with those more in need.
“I had a lot of difficult times as a kid,” Haq said. “I know how much it meant to me as a kid, when we grew up, when we struggled… and a friend would give you a little shoulder to lean on, would help you.”
The businessman estimated that he and his team of family and volunteers would serve 1,500 meals between delivery, takeout and dinner on Thursday.
A kind of pay-it-forward spirit has developed throughout the day. Haq said two Baton Rouge sisters who ate at the restaurant last year returned this year to volunteer. A man who was unemployed and enjoying the free meal came forward after finding employment and offered to donate desserts to support the good cause.
“Like my father said, you want to create this environment, you have to create this village so that other people can work with you to make it happen,” he said.
Kevin Domingue was drawn to Haq’s vision of a Thanksgiving of compassion, connection, and service when the men met at Lafayette’s Kiwanis Club. He’s now been a volunteer at Bailey’s Thanksgivings for about 20 years.
Domingue manages the logistics of the food delivery operation.
Every year, people call weeks in advance to write down their names, addresses, and the number of meals they need. Domingue organizes the list and turns it into mapped routes for each delivery driver using a combination of a program he coded, Google Maps and MapQuest, he said.
On Thursday, 20 volunteer drivers were scheduled to drive a total of 350 miles, covering an 800-square-mile area around Acadiana, to deliver 300 meals to those returning home and others who couldn’t make it to the restaurant to eat, he said.
Among the drivers were Domingue’s brother Cal, who had traveled from California over the holidays to lend a hand, and his brother Dave, who helped pack and organize take-out meals. His mother, now 93, no longer volunteers at Bailey’s, but she was the frontline host for years, he said.
“I think you could say that everyone who has ever volunteered here has a life-changing story to tell. It’s a humbling experience,” he said.
Domingue recalled that one year while he was delivering food, he had met a man who hungered for company more than the food he was delivering. The need for connection stayed with him, he said.
“I love my French heritage and the French word for thanksgiving is ‘action de grâces’ which means ‘action of grace’. So I think it’s appropriate to put a thank you into action. That’s why I’m doing it, and I think that’s why everyone else that comes here is doing it,” Domingue said.