Operation Turkey, a local nonprofit organization, makes sure everyone receives a warm Thanksgiving meal.
Story by Stephanie Adeline
Photos by Ashley Ephraim
For the past 16 years, Operation Turkey has been handing out food to the homeless on Thanksgiving day. The nonprofit’s staff is unpaid, working voluntarily to share Thanksgiving joy with the less fortunate. Operation Turkey has various locations in 12 cities across six states. This year, it received help from 15,000 volunteers nationwide, about 9,000 of which are in Austin.
Operation Turkey started in 2000 in Austin, when founder Richard Bagdonas gave one plate of a leftover Thanksgiving meal to a homeless man on Sixth Street. Moved by what he saw, he decided that he was going to do more. He ran the organization for 10 years before handing it to current executive director Brian Tolbert.
"We're one of the most inclusive organizations you'll ever find,” Tolbert says. "We don't turn away any volunteers. We're all about diversity. Everybody from all walks of life comes here, kids and adults. We have something for everybody to do.”
For example, on Nov. 23, Operation Turkey Austin hosted the Turkey Tailgate, where the volunteers prepared and smoked 600 turkeys. The turkeys were then be stored and delivered to three different locations all over Austin, to be distributed on Thanksgiving day. In addition to the turkeys, volunteers sort out clothing donations and toiletries for care packages, which will be distributed along with meals.
Marketing and PR director Rachel Pearsall also shared her opinion on the diversity of volunteers. “Given the circumstance that the country is in right now, with all the divisiveness that we’re experiencing, it’s just amazing to see everybody come together, in all ages, working together to help the community,” Pearsall says.
Operation Turkey also receives donations from other sponsors. Third Base, a locally-owned sports bar, donated their parking lot space for the Turkey Tailgate. US Foods donated food, not only for the meals to be distributed, but also breakfast and lunch for the volunteers. Other sponsors include PF Chang’s and Guero’s, which both donated space for the packing and delivery of meals on Thanksgiving day.
Matt Woodruff, a soldier, volunteered for both the Turkey Tailgate and on Thanksgiving day. “When I was little, we didn’t have anything. Now I’m an adult, I volunteer to help other people,” Woodruff says.
Pearsall started as a volunteer three years ago, and jumped to a leadership position not long after. She could not go home for Thanksgiving and was looking for a way to give back to the community. “I got online, found Operation Turkey,” Pearsall says. “Then something hits me like a ton of bricks, I have to go. And now, even though we work all year round trying to prepare for these four hours, we do it because we love it.”