Hundreds of people gathered at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus in Washington, D.C., on Saturday to participate in “organized chaos.”
At least that’s how many who were present described the scene, in which 1,200 boxes were being stuffed with fruit, meat and vegetables. The hectic gathering was part of the 20th annual Thanksgiving food distribution hosted by Project GiveBack, a nonprofit group based in Washington. The event brings hundreds of people together to assemble boxes of food that are given to families who need help putting Thanksgiving dinner on the table.
Each box contains an entire Thanksgiving spread: a whole turkey, ground turkey, bacon, fish filets, chicken thighs, potatoes, stuffing, sweet potatoes, elbow macaroni, onions, apples, green peppers, oranges and sweet potato pie. Two types of boxes are put together — small boxes, meant to feed a family of four or less, and large boxes, meant to feed more than four people.
Project GiveBack raises the money for all that food with the help of corporate sponsors and donations. Ransom Miller, founder of the nonprofit, said 55 percent of donations for the event came from individuals giving $100 or less.
Miller, 44, works for a mortgage company full-time but said growing up in a house that emphasized community service fueled his desire to regularly give back to his community. He said Project GiveBack started as a simple collection of money at his workplace that ended up providing Thanksgiving dinner for six families.
This year, 1,500 families total will benefit from Project GiveBack’s work; the event in Washington, produced 1,200 boxes, while a separate event in Northern Virginia produced 300 boxes.
It’s no simple task getting 1,200 Thanksgiving dinners stuffed into boxes and shipped out to homes in just one day.
The process begins with a pep talk led by Miller and his wife, Hardisha. The two spoke to an audience of hundreds packed into an auditorium early Saturday, thanking them for sacrificing their time early on a weekend morning.
In an interview Saturday, Miller said the board of directors at Project GiveBack works to cater events to those who may not have a lot of time to volunteer.
“I’m not going to ask you to come every Saturday, I’m not going to ask you to give up a lot of your time,” Miller said. “One time a year I’m gonna ask you to come out and do a few hours to help the community.”
Miller said much of the volunteer base for Project GiveBack is made up of community service groups, like student organizations from Howard University and Jack and Jill, a family organization that provides cultural, educational and civic activities for children.
Dorri Robertson, 56, lives in California but spent Saturday volunteering at Project GiveBack’s event with her daughter who lives in Washington. Robertson said she’s doing a 30-day challenge this November showing and telling people how thankful she is, and she showed up on Saturday as part of that challenge.
“I’m blessed to be a blessing,” Robertson said in an interview Saturday.
Information about Project GiveBack reached Shauna Brown, 42, by word-of-mouth.
“This kind of fell into my lap,” Brown said while delivering boxes on Saturday.
Brown, a clinical development liaison for a pharmaceutical company who lives in Northeast Washington, was touched after delivering just one box on Saturday.
“I’m going to go home and reflect on all of this, how fortunate I am,” Brown said. “This reminds me that we always just need to be thankful for what we have.”
The real reason for all this “organized chaos” is the giving, and the impact each box of food makes on family. Many volunteers at Saturday’s event said they would only participate if they could be a driver, because to see the looks on the faces of those who get boxes — the surprise, the joy and even the tears — made all the heavy-lifting, fundraising and invested time worth it.
Charmel Hamiel, a single mother of four children who lives in Southwest Washington, was one such recipient of a Project GiveBack box on Saturday. She found out about the program through the not-for-profit mental health agency Community Connections, which submitted an application to Project GiveBack on her behalf. She said the program is especially beneficial for her since she doesn’t drive, and Project GiveBack brings the food to your door.
“I think it’s a beautiful program, wonderful,” Hamiel said in an interview at her home Saturday.
Ruby Flourney, 73, choked up when she received her box at her home in Southwest D.C. on Saturday. She said it was a surprise, and described the moment she found out she’d be receiving a box of Thanksgiving food.
“I said, ‘I’m not even going to go through all of this question-asking, whatever, I’m gonna say yes,'” Flourney laughed.
Flourney said she hopes to volunteer with Project GiveBack in the future, saying giving back is her ministry. She said she received much needed assistance when she first joined her church in 1995, and since then she’s volunteered with the church as a way to pay it forward.
“I was down, I was down, down, down,” Flourney said. “I was raising my 13-year-old granddaughter and I was really struggling, I just came from Massachusetts with my dying aunt, and I was homeless, so I started going to the food banks and I found out I could go to more than one food bank at a time. I got so overloaded with food, I started giving back.”
“This is a blessing for me, for somebody to give me something,” Florney said.
For more information on Project GiveBack visit the organization website at www.projectgiveback.org.
All photos, video and reporting by Paige Lavender.