"Have you had a chance to eat yet?" This question has been asked thousands of times by volunteers of Austin-based organization Operation Turkey.
The grassroots organization, established almost two decades ago, has a simple, yet significant, mission: ensure those in need receive a warm meal on Thanksgiving Day.
It all started in 2000, when Richard Bagdonas, the organization’s founder, handed out a single plate of food to a homeless man on Sixth Street.
“I had never felt such a rush of emotion come over me. I slowly walked back to my car, sat in the driver’s seat, put my head down into the steering wheel, and cried,” Bagdonas says in a blog post. “I made a difference in someone else’s life. Success in my life was marginalized because it was always for me. This was something different. It was for a complete stranger who needed help and doing so felt so good.”
That single plate grew to 60,000 meals served last year across 22 cities in seven states. This year, the organization's goal is to serve 75,000 meals, while also providing care packages and clothing to those in need.
In Texas, Operation Turkey has expanded to encompass the greater Austin metro area, as well as San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth. Nationwide, over 30,000 people participate in this volunteer-only organization.
“Just through word of mouth alone we’ve been able to reach all of these people and organically grow this organization to other cities,” Brian Tolbert, executive director and chairman, says. “Those people that do it love it, [and] they go out and tell their friends and just bring more people with them.”
Volunteers can register online to participate on Thanksgiving Day. After that, Tolbert says, they “just simply show up. We tell everybody they are leaders that day.”
What makes it such a unique and satisfying service opportunity is that the experience itself is very fluid, with many responsibilities for volunteers to fulfill.
The Operation Turkey shift runs from 8 am to noon. Depending on the location, the day begins with a short speech delivered by Tolbert.
After that, “[I] step back and enjoy watching the community do their thing,” he says. “They get one day to do it, and this is really their event. I’m just the fortunate one to be able to coordinate it throughout the year.”
Jobs range from cooking, cleaning, and plating to packaging and delivering goods. Operation Turkey not only provides recipients with a plate full of turkey and fixin's; a delicious slice of pie is also included.
Cassandra Fairbanks, a first-time volunteer and a member of Capital Confectioners in Austin, first heard about the organization at a club meeting. She says the club is planning on baking 400 pies to donate to the Thanksgiving meals. These pies will be added to the 600 Bake a Wish will be donating this year.
“I wanted to help others who may not have the family or means to get a warm meal on Thanksgiving,” she says. “I wanted them to know that someone remembered them.”
This year, Operation Turkey volunteer centers will be located at three spots in Austin on Thanksgiving Day — Güero’s Taco Bar on South Congress, P.F. Chang’s downtown and P.F. Chang’s in the Arboretum — as well as the H-E-B Center in Cedar Park.
Those who can't volunteer on Thanksgiving Day have other ways to get involved. There's an opportunity to volunteer at the Turkey Tailgate at Third Base in Cedar Park on November 27, when turkeys are cooked, donations are sorted, and preparations for the next day are made.
Monetary donations are also accepted. Every $5 feeds two people, and donations can be made here.