Photo credit to Lamb of God Church.

Feeding the 5,000 For the typical American family, Thanksgiving is all about taking it slow: Waiting for the turkey to finish roasting, catching up with the relatives, watching a triple-header of NFL football.

For Art and Susan Nicoletti, Thanksgiving isn’t so relaxing. And they wouldn’t have it any other way. For the last 13 years, this Shadow Wood couple has taken a lead role in organizing the area’s largest Thanksgiving outreach.

Feeding the 5,000 (named after the miracle of Jesus) started as a simple Thanksgiving meal for a few dozen folks at Lamb of God Church. Today, it’s a massive, community-wide effort which delivers Thanksgiving meals to more than 6,000 local families in financial need.

It takes a volunteer force of more than 700 and a cash budget of $25,000, plus numerous in-kind food and supply donations. Since its inception, Feeding the 5,000 has actually fed more than 50,000 people on Thanksgiving Day.

“It’s amazing to see how many people show up to help,” says founder Tom Mullins. “It’s really a community event now.”

Sixteen years ago, Mullins’ pastor asked him to use his skills as a chef to put together a Thanksgiving meal for parishioners who didn’t have family in the area. Many of them asked if they could bring leftovers to neighbors who were shut-ins. The next year, a teacher from Immokalee inquired about delivering Thanksgiving meals to school for impoverished families. The following year, the church partnered with a few more agencies to help families in need.

“I put together a simple dinner to have fellowship during Thanksgiving, and it really grew on its own by word of mouth,” Mullins says.

When the Nicolettis first got involved, the church was delivering about 300 hot meals. By 2008, that number had grown tenfold to 3,200. Organizers discovered they could serve more families if they prepared meals in advance and delivered them cold to be reheated by the recipients. The largest number of meals ever delivered in a single year was 9,600 in 2011, during the recession.

“It just kind of happened,” says Art Nicoletti, who now organizes this massive annual undertaking. “The people who got involved stayed involved. It’s been a nice tradition.”

The process begins on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, with more than 150 turkeys a day cooked in the Lamb of God kitchen. On Wednesday, the volunteer force arrives, each assigned a shift and a job: pulling the meat off turkey carcasses, portioning Turkey into servings for two or four, preparing side dishes. Bread and some desserts are provided through the corporate philanthropy of Target, Costco, Publix, Calistoga Bakery and others.

Two major grants help out with the cash needs. The Bob and Delores Hope Foundation donates $10,000 annually, while Shadow Wood Charitable Foundation gives another $5,000. The remaining $10,000 comes from various local donors, including restaurants, community organizations, and individuals.

“Without all of them, it wouldn’t happen,” Nicoletti says. “People have big hearts and they just care so much about other people who are struggling.”

The community’s generosity is evidenced by the number of volunteers who show up each year. Many scout troops, neighborhood clubs, and student groups make Feeding the 5,000 an annual tradition. Last year, organizers had to turn several would-be volunteers away because they had already filled the shifts.

“We want to make sure every volunteer who comes feels they were helpful and had a really clear job to do,” Nicoletti says. Among this dedicated volunteer force is the Whitehouse family of Bella Terra. They’ve been involved since 16-year-old Daniel was a little boy. It took him a long time to realize that many families enjoy a leisurely Thanksgiving morning, waiting for their turkey dinners to cook.

“Thanksgiving for us has to start in the evening,” says his mom, Marianne Whitehouse. Her family has done everything from pulling turkey meat off the bone to delivering meals to grateful families. “It’s a great thing to come on Thanksgiving morning and see this symphony of people working together.”

About 150 drivers deliver meals to distribution sites and individual homes. Needy families pre register through more than 30 partnering organizations, including Interfaith Charities of South Lee. The local food pantry served 130 households through Feeding the 5,000 last year. Each was given a voucher to pick up a meal on Thanksgiving morning, explained board President Bonnie Olson.

“Every year, they make it more streamlined so it doesn’t feel chaotic,” adds Whitehouse of the volunteer experience. “It’s seamless.” What started as one church’s Thanksgiving dinner has become a true community outreach, with more than half of volunteers coming from outside organizations, including numerous student volunteers.

“The reason people come back to volunteer is we get more out of it than the energy we put into it; it’s a very contagious thing,” Nicoletti says. “Our Thanksgiving effort not only helps struggling families enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving meal, it also allows our volunteers — especially young volunteers — to experience the joy of helping others.”

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