Joy Elliott was talking with a reporter at The Giving Heart Community Thanksgiving Feast last year when her eyes locked in on a twenty-something young man across the room. He looked distraught. Elliott bowed out of the interview and barreled through the crowd, heading toward the man. When she asked him what she could do for him, he began to cry.
“He hugged me and put his head on my shoulder,” says Elliott who sits on the board of The Giving Heart and is a social worker by trade. “He told me his mom had committed suicide and his father was involved in a bad lifestyle.”
The young man told her he had been abused as a child and recently had been sleeping on a porch at an apartment near Virginia Commonwealth University. He had been tearing through trashcans in an attempt to find pills that he could use to commit suicide. He had come to the Richmond Convention Center looking for water to complete his desperate mission. “He saw people lined up, so he got in line to get a bottle of water,” Elliott says. “He was encouraged to stay and eat, but he still got a bottle of water to take with him.”
Elliott talked with the young man for almost five hours. She arranged counseling for him and found him a bed in a shelter. “I now have another son. He calls me Mom,” she says. “He has a job and a place to live in Florida.”
The incident made Elliott realize just how important The Giving Heart Community Thanksgiving Feast is to the people that attend the event. It means more than simply sharing a meal on a holiday. “His life was saved as a result of The Giving Heart,” she says.
Vicki Neilson founded The Giving Heart in 2003. The organization hosted its first Community Thanksgiving Feast two years later. “I formed The Giving Heart out of my personal desire to give back,” Neilson says. “The Thanksgiving Feast fell into my lap.”
The organization that had been hosting the feast, which mainly served the homeless population, decided not to continue its involvement. “When I took it on, I wanted it to be all-inclusive for anyone in the Greater Richmond community. It didn’t matter why they were coming. I wanted it to become more of a community dining room,” Neilson says.
Planning for the event begins in February of each year and volunteer slots are snatched up quickly. “We are so fortunate that so many people in the community like to be part of this,” Neilson says. “We have to turn away volunteers, but we tell people to come and sit with their family at a table and see what it’s like and volunteer next year.”
The event is an all-day commitment for the volunteers. Most arrive around nine-thirty and leave between three and four in the afternoon. Volunteer positions range from table hosts to youth ambassadors. This year Neilson is adding sixty extra slots to the Youth Ambassador Program for young adults from fourteen to twenty-four. “They are the actual servers that day,” Neilson says. “They are assigned to various tables.”
Last year, more than 3,000 people attended the feast – everyone from students on VCU’s Medical Campus and families down on their luck to the elderly and the homeless. “We meet a lot of needs,” Neilson says. “We have a lot of people who have lost a loved one and don’t want to be alone on Thanksgiving. The whole point is that we come together. It’s like a reunion. People come back every year.”
Lines begin forming before seven on Thanksgiving morning. This year, the organization will have breakfast items available for guests Who arrive early. Neilson is also developing a transportation system to help the elderly. “I often see people drop people off and say ‘someone will give you a ride home,’” she says. “We are focusing on trying to pan out to senior complexes around town and find out how many want to come to this.” Giving Heart will partner with the City of Richmond and its Walmart bus run to provide routing for attendees. “People can call in to let us know they want to ride that particular route,” Neilson says.
During the year, Neilson works on different promotions to raise funds for the event. Whole Foods Market in Short Pump sponsors an annual Give at the Register event. Donations at the checkout register are used to support the Community Thanksgiving Feast, especially in the purchase of turkeys. The organization also works with Sam’s Club the weekend before Thanksgiving. Shoppers can support The Giving Heart by purchasing items from its shopping list. “They can purchase items for preparing the meal or they can purchase toiletries or food,” Neilson says.
Some volunteers, like Flip Harrison, make the event a yearly affair. Harrison, who owns EIS Inc. and designs commercial kitchens, serves as the chef of the Feast. “I’m around chefs all the time and I love to cook,” he says.
“It seemed like a good fit.” It takes Harrison about seven days to get everything prepped, so he and volunteer Davis Caskey take the week before Thanksgiving off from work. “We do nothing but cook and play in the kitchen,” Harrison says. “Neither of us are classically trained chefs. It’s just a lot of fun and we enjoy it.”
The Thanksgiving meal they prepare consists of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans, rolls, cranberry sauce, and seasonal pies. One of Harrison’s biggest tasks is cooking the 250 turkeys that will be served. Thanks to two combi-oven/ steamers and five sets of double convection ovens he can cook them all in one day. “We rotate them in and out of the oven as fast as we can,” he says. “We can cook forty at a time in each of the combi-oven/ steamers. They use hot air and steam, which makes the turkeys moist. Each oven in the double convection ovens holds eight turkeys.”
After they are done, the turkeys are Cooled down in a walk-in refrigerator. “Everything is monitored the whole time,” Harrison says, noting that he adheres to strict food safety guidelines.
Turkeys are deboned on Tuesday and Wednesday before the event. Harrison uses approximately twenty-five volunteers to help with the process. Many are executive chefs from Aramark and other restaurants or colleges in the Richmond area. “These guys can flat debone a turkey. They can do it in a couple of minutes,” he says. “It would be hard to do this without them.”
The task of cooking about 240 gallons of both mashed potatoes and stuffing is scheduled for Thanksgiving morning. Close to a hundred pans of green beans are prepped the day before the event. “We do all the gravy from scratch,” Harrison says. “We do our own broth and use that to make the gravy. Davis is our gravy master.”
Harrison and Caskey work from seven to seven on Thanksgiving. Throughout the day, they make sure the food is heated and held at the correct tempera- ture in the mobile delivery cabinets they use to transport the food to the conven- tion center hall. Any food that is left over is donated to local police and fire stations as well as homeless shelters.
Harrison and his family enjoy volunteer- ing for the event. “I get a lot of hugs from people when I walk the floor,” Harrison says. “That keeps you coming back.” Many of the 800 volunteers associated with the event serve as table hosts.
Neilson refers to table hosting as the “centerpiece” of the feast. “It brings together our desire to join together for food and fellowship,” she says. “It’s also a great way to introduce children to com- munity service in a small, yet important way. Sometimes simply spending time With someone is the greatest gift many of us can offer.”
Husband and wife Mali and Tyler Hart of Chesterfield look forward to being table hosts each year. “People come from all walks of life,” Mali Hart says. “One year we had a blind man at the table and he talked about how he listened to ‘Three’s Company’ on television.”
Mali Hart often starts the conversation with a reference to sports, hoping that someone will talk about their favorite team. “We also try to talk about what they like to do in their spare time,” she says. “I like to know their story and where they are in their life. It makes you realize how we all have something to be thankful for on Thanksgiving.”
Beyond food and fellowship, Neilson tries to provide people attending the event with some of the material items they might need. Each year she sets up a distribution room that includes things like shoes, socks, and toiletries. Volunteers are also on hand to give haircuts and provide various services. “It’s one of those things that grows each year,” Neilson says. “This year we will have a whole bunch of coats that will be given out.”
Elliott spends much of her time finding resources for people. “I also try to give people a smile, an ear, and a shoulder to cry on as well as a hug,” she says, noting that her whole family volunteers at the event as well. On Friday after Thanksgiving, Elliott and her family celebrate Thanksgiving and talk about the people they met the previous day. “Every year my heart is so touched by these folks,” she says. “Everybody comes with a story to share. If you take the time to listen to each other, your heart will be touched.”
More than 3,000 people attended last year’s feast – everyone from students to families down on their luck to the elderly and homeless. Want in?
As November days peel off, one of the pillars supporting Richmond’s annual Community Thanksgiving Feast wants you to know this: “Everyone has something to offer. Whether it’s time or donated items, believe me – we’ll take it and we’ll put everything, and everyone to good use.”
Vicki Neilson, founder of The Giving Heart, says the best place to look for information regarding outreach opportunities is thegivingheart.org. There, you’ll read about sponsoring a table in memory of a loved one, assembling take-away bags of toiletries for guests, donating food and clothing, and on Thanksgiving itself, performing music for guests, volunteering as a youth ambassador, or serving as a table host family. Local nonprofits are also welcome to set up tables to offer resources throughout the day.
If none of that suits you or you’ve missed a sign-up deadline, Neilson says, “Just come on down with the family – later in the day if you want – and sit down at a table and talk to people.” The organizer explains that sometimes additional volunteer opportunities materialize as the day unfolds. (Oh yes! That might mean clean-up.)
“I can’t say enough how this event is for everyone. We try to develop ways for the elderly and the homeless to be part of this,” Neilson emphasizes, “but we want to bring together those from all walks of life to share in the meal.”
With that in mind, Neilson always reassures folks who ask that they are not taking food out of anyone’s mouth by joining the community at the table. “We plan for 3,000, but we want to see the event grow. No one will be turned away on Thanksgiving. That’s the meaning of food and fellowship.”
For general information about the Community Thanksgiving Feast, go here.
VOLUNTEERING: Looking for a way to volunteer with The Giving Heart this year? On Wednesday, November 21, they will post an online signup for anyone interested in helping with last-minute needs.