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Feeding the masses: Annual event reaches more than 6,500 Southwest Florida residents

Volunteers load a refrigerated truck with Thanksgiving dinners, ready to be delivered to thousands of local families in need through the Feeding the 5,000 outreach of Lamb of God Church. (Photo: Laura Gates/Correspondent)

By Laura Gates, Correspondent. Nearly 500 turkeys were roasted in the kitchen at Lamb of God Church last week in preparation for Feeding the 5,000, a collaborative charitable outreach which aimed to ensure every Southwest Florida family enjoyed a hearty holiday meal.

Now in its 15th year, this volunteer-based operation has provided about 58,000 Thanksgiving dinners, including serving more than 6,500 this year, said Steering Committee Chair Art Nicoletti. About 4,000 of the meals were delivered to individual homes on Thanksgiving morning, while the remaining meals were delivered to partner agencies like Interfaith Caregivers of South Lee, Immokalee schools and Church of God -Fort Myers, which serves a Thanksgiving meal for the homeless, noted Nicoletti.


“People get two things,” he said. “First, they get meals to have on Thanksgiving, but more importantly, they get to know someone cares about them.”

Hundreds of “someones” care enough to contribute to the success of Feeding the 5,000 each year. Planning begins months in advance as the steering committee seeks donations, orders supplies and begins to figure out logistics. Lamb of God works with 35 partner agencies to identify individuals and families in need. From this list, hundreds of delivery routes are mapped. On Thanksgiving week, about 750 people show up to volunteer as cooks, turkey-pullers, meal assembly workers and drivers.

“The amount of people who come and volunteer is unbelievable,” Nicoletti said, surveying a bustling fellowship hall, filled with about 130 workers assembling meals on Wednesday afternoon.

Many families, service clubs and youth groups make Feeding the 5,000 an annual tradition, including Girl Scout Troop 427.

“We’ve been doing this event since they were Daisies in kindergarten,” said troop leader Kristen Allen.

Now fifth-and-sixth-grade cadets, these Girl Scouts packaged pumpkin pies and assembled meals into four-serving containers for three hours on Wednesday.

“It makes a difference in the community, and it helps other people,” said Girl Scout Bridget Dunofrio.

Some younger scouts also joined in the charitable mission Wednesday. Members of Troop 292, made up of Brownies and Juniors ages 8 to 11, took their jobs seriously as they loaded their trays with precisely portioned packages of turkey and scoops of side dishes like sweet potatoes, green beans, corn and stuffing.

“The girls love it,” said troop leader Jennifer Fischer. “It’s a good way for them to give back to their community, and they’re getting hands-on experience.”

Turkeys, supplies and ingredients for side dishes are purchased with the help of two large annual grants: $10,000 from the Bob and Delores Hope Foundation and $5,000 from the Shadow Wood Charitable Foundation. Costco, Publix, Target and other bakeries donate breads and desserts.

Steering committee member Maureen Vath is responsible for ensuring most families were able to enjoy a traditional pumpkin pie for dessert. She also organized a drive for home-baked cookies, which netted about 5,000 cookies donated by Lamb of God parishioners.

Like Nicoletti, Vath was in constant motion Wednesday, helping direct kitchen operations and volunteers. It was a large, yet well-organized, crew of workers. Every volunteer is a assigned a role; no one sits around.

“When people are here, they’re happy,” Vath said. “They’re warm-hearted, and they all want to help. It’s a beautiful place to be.”

While most volunteers are local, a few hailed from out of state. Carolwayne Tavener’s family vacations in Fort Myers every fall break from Charleston, S.C. They heard about Feeding the 5,000 and decided to help out.

“Guaranteed we’ll be back next year,” she said, repetitively scooping stuffing and placing foil-enclosed turkey packages into family packs. “It’s a wonderful thing to do.”

A group from Mariner High School’s Hispanic Honor Society traveled from Cape Coral to serve.

“I love helping other people,” said Society member Ilieana Villaman.

Carol Dethmers has been volunteering at Feeding the 5,000 every year since 2009.

“You walk away feeling you are so lucky,” she said, recalling the year she delivered meals to homes in north Fort Myers. “They have so little, and they were so appreciative.”

Dethmers’ friend Marcia Rees is also a longtime volunteer. The first year she served, the outreach fed just 500. This year, she came out to help every day from Monday through Wednesday, first pulling turkey meat off the bones and then serving side dishes on an assembly line.

“It’s so worthwhile,” Rees said.

After spending all week managing operations at Lamb of God, Art and Susan Nicoletti typically get back to their home in Shadow Wood at the Brooks late on Thanksgiving Day.

“I don’t eat turkey on Thanksgiving,” Art said. “By that time, I’ve been picking on turkeys for too many days. We eat at the (Shadow Wood) club, then I go home and watch football and fall asleep.”


Original published on The Banner.