How cool is Operation Turkey?

Operation Turkey is one of those philanthropic organization that can inspire the rest of us to forget our inhibitions and do something obvious to help someone else.

I first read about Operation Turkey in June. Andrea Ball had a bit about the project in her philanthropy column, and reading it was one of those “A-ha!” experiences. What got me about it was the story about how it all started – basically – with one guy just having the guts and willingness to do what we all think about doing.

Thanksgiving 2000: Richard Bagdonas and a few friends were enjoying one of the great big Thanksgiving dinners, complete with all the fixings. Turkey, dressing, rolls, potatoes… all that food piled high on their plates – and there was plenty left over for second and third helpings. After having their fill of Thanksgiving goodness, Bagdonas realized that there was more than enough food left. Plenty. It all made him realize how lucky he was.

Then he thought of the people in Austin who might not get a Thanksgiving dinner that day and, in fact, might not eat anything at all. What a waste. Wasn’t there a way, he wondered, to get his leftovers to someone else who might need a good, hot meal? Well… there was.

Why not put some on a plate and drive downtown to find someone to give it to?

Could it be that simple? Would it really help? What if that person was offended, told him to go away, threw the food back at him? Or worse, what if that person tried to rob him or hurt him? It just could’t be as simple as putting food on a plate and giving it to someone. If it were, why weren’t other people doing it?

That year, despite his fear and hesitations, Bagdonas did it anyway. He drove to Sixth Street, spotted a homeless man in a wheelchair, and offered him the food. The man couldn’t speak, but another homeless man sitting nearby thanked Bagdonas and proceeded to feed the man in the wheelchair.

I met Bagdonas for lunch at Casa de Luz this summer. He told me all about that first year.

“I admit it, I cried all the way home,” says Bagdonas. “I had just never done something that affected me so much. It was this unbelievable feeling.”

Seven years later, Bagdonas is still plating up Thanksgiving dinner, driving around Austin, and handing it out to people on the street. In 2006, he handed out 500 Thanksgiving dinners. And in 2007, Operation Turkey will hand out hundreds of Thanksgiving dinners in 13 cities across Texas and Lousiana. He doesn’t do it alone, of course. He’s enlisted dozens of volunteers to cook, package, and distribute the food. He’s gotten the support of Austin Community Foundations to administer the Turkey fund. He even throws two concerts earlier in the year to help pay for all the food and packaging.

One of the most interesting things about Operation Turkey is that it has had no shortage of volunteers. Aren’t there a lot of other places people can volunteer around the holidays? “I think we make a great volunteer experience because I let people choose how they want to help,” says Bagdonas. “And we make an effort to find something interesting for people to do.” Last year, he remembers, a number of volunteers brought their children, which were quickly enlisted to decorate and color the styrofoam boxes used to serve the food. “We had kids writing ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ on all these boxes, drawing turkeys, flowers, hearts… it was a great way to get them involved.”

Intrepid people in other communities have contacted Richard to figure out how they can start an Operation Turkey of their own. (See this page, “Start in your city”) Richard walks them through it, even contacting that person’s local police department to find out where it would be safe to deliver food to people in need.

Bagdonas’s story and organization continues to stick with me because of its straightforward, entrepreneurial approach to giving. He didn’t head for a soup kitchen where he’d be one of many ladeling food. He didn’t just write a check the next year to the food bank. …not that either of these options are bad choices. The point is, Bagdonas found a way to help that best suited him.

It reminds me that there’s an opportunity out there for everyone to give.


2 Responses

  1. This year Operation Turkey is going to hand out 2,000 – 3,000 meals in Austin alone. We are looking for volunteers. Visit and signup in the upper right hand corner.

    Thanks for the mention.

    Operation Turkey

  2. By the way, someone wrote to Andrea Ball asking where his/her family could volunteer this Thanksgiving. Andrea offered Operation Turkey, and from what Richard told me, it’s a really great place for families to help feed the hungry this holiday.

    If you do sign up to go, please write and tell me about the experience.

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