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Southwest Florida nonprofits gear up for high number of Thanksgiving meal donations

Andrew Atkins
Naples Daily News

The holiday season is one of generosity: Generous gifts, generous donations and generous second and third helpings of turkey, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes.

But not every family has access to the prototypical American Thanksgiving, and Southwest Florida organizations that provide annual food distribution events ahead of the holidays are seeing more need than ever amid the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Stefanie Ink Edwards, chief development and operating officer with the Fort Myers-based hunger and homelessness nonprofit Community Cooperative, said her organization will expect to send 1,500 meals out on Thanksgiving morning alone as part of its Full Plates Project. Throughout November, the nonprofit also will provide food for close to 4,000 households through their other programs.

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“Our numbers for food distribution are up three times,” Edwards said.

That need is seen in Collier County, too.

Bill Beynon, the president and CEO of Capital Wealth Advisors, started donating turkeys to the nonprofit St. Matthew’s House 17 years ago with 25 birds, he said. This year, with the assistance of the annual Capital Wealth Advisors’ Turkey Drop event, St. Matthew’s House will distribute more than 2,000 meals throughout the community.

Volunteer Jordan Bunce, center, places a meal box in to a waiting car, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, at the First Baptist Church of Naples.

“It’s something we’re thrilled to grow every year,” Beynon said. “Many people don’t realize how big the need is.”

Bob Irzyk, St. Matthew’s House director of marketing and communications, said the organization, which runs homeless shelters, a soup kitchen and substance abuse recovery programs, is expecting a need on a level they haven’t seen before.

“We’re trying to help as many people as we can,” Irzyk said.

Volunteer Jordan Bunce carries a Hope for the Holidays meal box in to waiting car, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, at the First Baptist Church of Naples. Each meal box included a frozen turkey, side items, pumpkin pie, and a dozen eggs.

For those who may not otherwise be able to afford the full Thanksgiving fixings — a turkey, for example, and vegetables and pie for dessert — having the opportunity to have that meal provides a sense of tradition.

“It brings a little sense of normalcy,” Irzyk said.

Another nonprofit in the area, NAMI Collier County, distributed meals for 55 families that are part of its programming, according to its Director of Development Kristin Long.

Volunteers guide vehicles in to a loading area as they get ready to pack the cars with Hope for the Holidays meal boxes, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, at the First Baptist Church of Naples.

“The families were so happy. They were just in tears when they saw the boxes,” Long said. “So many of them are struggling all the time, and then add in the pandemic, and it’s been a harder time for them.”

Many of the families NAMI Collier works with, Long said, worked in the industries like food or cleaning, and many lost their jobs.

Volunteer Jeff Buchholz, left, helps loads a Hope for the Holidays meal boxes in to a waiting car, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, at the First Baptist Church of Naples.

“I think in a year where everyone had the carpet ripped out from underneath them, it’s really important to have something to look forward to,” she said.

Kathryn Kelly, who founded The Heights Foundation which focuses on breaking the cycle of poverty in Lee County’s Harlem Heights neighborhood, said they had to alter this year’s distribution event to account for safety concerns around the pandemic.

Volunteers pack a waiting car with Hope for the Holidays meal boxes, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, at the First Baptist Church of Naples. Each meal box included a frozen turkey, side items, pumpkin pie, and a dozen eggs. The meal boxes, packed and distributed by St, Matthew's House volunteers. About 2,000 will be distributed to low-income families, people with disabilities, seniors and veterans.

As opposed to the traditional, market-style event where families could pick what they wanted, they’re limiting volunteers and spreading tables out more, Kelly said. She’d like to at least match — and hopefully exceed — last year’s goal of distributing enough food to feed at least 300 families.

“We do see an increased need, for sure,” she said. “It’s hard to believe, and where we live, that families are really struggling that hard but they are.”

Andrew Atkins is a Naples Daily News features reporter. Contact him via email at andrew.atkins@naplesnews.com. To support work like Andrew's, please consider subscribing: https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/

Volunteer Emily Paterakis prepares for the next wave of cars to arrive during the Hope for the Holidays meal distribution, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, at the First Baptist Church of Naples.