Rodney O’Neill Feeds Thousands, Following His Mother’s Footsteps



By Gail Wood

Edward Jones Block AdBarb O’Neill’s response always went beyond, “Oh, isn’t that a shame.”

She was always the tireless helper.

Whether it was taking foster children into her home, preparing meals for the homeless or giving away toys and clothes, O’Neill always reached out to help.

For 37 years, O’Neill fed as many as 1,000 people at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter meals.

barbs family and friends
Rodney O’Neill continues his mother’s legacy. Barb O’Neill started feeding people on Thanksgiving in the early 70’s.

Now, five years after her death, the meals continue, put on by O’Neill’s legacy – Barb’s Family and Friends. With her son, Rodney O’Neill organizing the charity events, the O’Neill family continues to make a difference.

“It was like she was grooming me her last three years to take this over,” Rodney said. “I didn’t know how it was going to work out. But it has.”

With a small army of volunteers – Rodney has about 300 names on his list of helpers – and 29 local businesses that faithfully donate food, toys and clothes, the free holiday dinners continue, 43 years after O’Neill began inviting friends to her house for a Thanksgiving dinner.

In the early ’70s, O’Neill invited people to dine with her, at her Lacey home, when she learned they didn’t have much to eat for Thanksgiving. After a few years, there were 60 people coming to her house for the holiday dinner. She then moved the dinner to  local churches and the yearly gathering continued to grow.

“It’s important this continues because a lot of people have learned to rely on this as a tradition,” Rodney said. “Not just for the people who are receiving the resources, but also the people who are volunteering and participating.”

O’Neill’s helping hand is more than meals. With Rodney managing, the number of people being fed has increased from 1,200 to 4,000 a year.

barbs family and friends
Thanksgiving and Christmas meals are served at the United Churches on November 27 and December 21.

In addition to the holiday meals, Rodney’s organization, “Barb O’Neill’s Family and Friends,” provide clothing, food baskets and toys and gifts. At Easter, they give out 500 Easter baskets, books and dental hygiene items (toothbrushes and toothpaste) donated by local dentists.

At Christmas, children walk into a room filled with donated items and they select something for their parents as a Christmas gift. After choosing a gift, they then get help wrapping it. There are also gifts for  the parents to pick for their child.

Both giver and receiver benefit.

“One of the most important things about everything we do is building a stronger community,” Rodney said. “We allow the people an opportunity to serve.”

Rodney’s day job is managing his two restaurants, Barb’s Barbeque and Soul Cuisine, catering and mobile unit. But, like his mother, his heart is in helping others.

“My dream is to one day do charity work full time,”  Rodney said.

barbs family and friends
It takes an army of volunteers to pull off a meal for 1,000 people.

When he was six, Rodney began helping his mother organize the annual meals. He’d unload food from trucks into the church and dish up meals. It was never something Rodney had to do. It was always something he wanted to do.

Barb O’Neill died in January 2008 at age 72. Before she died, she shared with her son her dream for the outreach she had started.

“One of the last things my mother and I discussed about the organization and continuing on this legacy was that if I did it, I had to do it based on my desire to serve and to continue this legacy,” Rodney said.

“I made a commitment to her and I made a commitment to myself to continue to serve and to continue the legacy.”

Need has always meant action for Rodney, just as it did with his mother.

But, from the start Rodney, realizes this isn’t something he can alone. To feed this many people, he relies on contributions and volunteers from schools, the community and businesses. People like Rich and Kay Smith, who are Rodney’s kitchen managers and have volunteered for six years, make annual meals possible.

barbs family and friends
Rodney O’Neill believes that it’s just as important to give people an opportunity to serve as it is to serve those who need help.

“We volunteered last year and were blown away by the love and compassion shown at this event,” Frances Erickson said.

With two restaurants – one in Tumwater and the other in Olympia on 14th and Jefferson – Rodney stays plenty busy. Besides his day job, he’s networking year around, going to events and reminding people about the holiday meals. He’s also come to realize the importance of faith, in God and in people. He learned that from his mom.

“I’d ask her ‘why aren’t you planning this? Why aren’t you making phone calls?'” said Rodney.  “She’d tell me you have to have a different kind of faith.”  It was a faith in prayer and trusting God.

“When that light went on and I understood that, it changed my life,” Rodney said.

To volunteer, visit the organization’s website, call Rodney at 360-485-9931 or email him at

This year’s free Thanksgiving dinner is Nov. 27 at the United Church on 11th and Washington from noon to 5 p.m. The Christmas dinner will be held on Dec. 21.


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