Joy Elliott was talking with some volunteers at The Giving Heart’s annual Community Thanksgiving Feast several years ago when she saw a young man with his head in his hands across the room. He looked miserable. When she caught up with him later at the event at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, she asked what she could do for him. He began to cry.
“He hugged me, and put his head on my shoulder,” says Elliott, a long-time volunteer and former board member who uses her social work background during the Feast. “He told me his mom had committed suicide and his father was mixed up in some troubling things.”
The 20-year-old told her he was homeless now, sleeping on the porch of a VCU apart- ment. He had been going through trash cans looking for pills he could use to commit suicide, and had come to the Richmond Convention Center on Thanksgiving looking for water to complete his mission. “He saw people lined up so he got in line to get a bottle of water,” Elliott says.
Elliott talked with the young man for hours that day. She arranged counseling for him, and found him a bed in a shelter. The interaction made Elliott realize just how important the Community Thanksgiving Feast can be. It means more than simply sharing a meal on a special holiday. “His life was saved as a result of The Giving Heart,” Elliott says.
Vicki Neilson founded The Giving Heart in 2003. The nonprofit hosted its first Community Thanksgiving Feast two years later, when another organization that had been hosting a similar operation, which mainly served Richmond’s homeless population, discontinued its event.
Since then, every year, hundreds of volunteers have offered time, talent, and funding to execute a feast on Thanksgiving afternoon for upwards of 3,000 guests, including families, seniors, the homeless, and college students from around the area.
“I can’t emphasize enough how this is for everyone. We especially try to develop ways for the elderly and the homeless to be part of this,” Neilson says, “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 have to plan for a certain amount, but no one will be turned away on Thanksgiving. That’s the meaning of food fellowship.”
Many of the 800 volunteers associated with the event serve as table hosts, coming back year after year as a family tradition of service. Neilson calls table-hosting 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 community service in a small, yet important, way. Sometimes simply spending time with others, whether you’re sitting quietly or chatting, is the greatest gift we can offer.”
The volunteer chef for the 2016 dinner was Xavier Beverly, co-owner and head chef at The Camel in Richmond.
“To use my skills for something greater than myself and to help others is not only an amazing feeling, but one more way to share my love of cooking with many more people,” Beverly says. “I want the happiness and joy I get from cooking to come through for others in a holiday meal.”
Other volunteers are needed to perform various tasks in the dining area, entertain, work donation tables, and offer information from their own organizations. The day before the event, volunteers prepare food and organize things for Thanksgiving Day. Neilson says one special volunteer opportunity is for students and young adults, fourteen to twenty-four years old, who act as the official servers that day.
In addition to a traditional Thanksgiving feast of turkey and all the trimmings, the Giving Heart works to coordinate other important services during the course of the day. After the meal, guests have the opportunity to browse an on-site donation center and leave with food bags, self-care items, or other seasonal essentials, such as gloves, hats, scarves, and blankets. This year, a blanket-making opportunity on Wednesday should increase the number of blankets that are distributed. “This started last year as a last-minute project and was very popular with our volunteers,” Neilson says. Guests can also get a free haircut, thanks to the donated services of local barbers.
Transportation is available to and from the Feast from various points around Richmond. “Last year, we worked with GRTC to meet some of the transportation needs within the city. Our goal this year is to expand this community outreach and make it available to even more people,” Neilson says.
The Community Feast
To sign up for The Giving Heart newsletter, check them out on Facebook and click “Join the List” on the left side of the page. You’ll receive special notice of all volunteer opportunities with regard to the Thanksgiving Feast.
You can also sign up for the newsletter here.
The Valentine Bag Project
In 2009, with a goal of helping even more people, Neilson says The Giving Heart initiated the Secret Senior Valentine Bag project when she realized she had leftover donations from the Thanksgiving Feast. The first year, she worked with the Hanover County Sheriff’s Department, who already had an “adopt a senior” program in place.
“There were about twenty-three seniors living on their own who the deputies had been keeping an eye on,” says Neilson. “So we delivered Valentine Bags to those folks that year, and since then, it has grown.”
Neilson noted that last year, The Giving Heart volunteers assembled and distributed more than 400 Valentine-themed bags to seniors in Hanover, Henrico, City of Richmond, Chesterfield, and New Kent.
Whether it’s through the Community Feast or the Secret Senior Valentine project, Elliott and Neilson agree that The Giving Heart’s mission is all about connecting with people and bringing joy to others’ lives, especially during the holiday season.