The numbers are staggering: 4,000 volunteers making 45,000 Thanksgiving meals in a matter of days in a vacant field behind a firehouse.
The Big Heart Brigade undertaking is so enormous, one has to see the operation to fully appreciate its scope. And this year marks the 25th anniversary, sealing its place as a Palm Beach County tradition.
The Big Heart Brigade comes to the rescue other times throughout the year, but the Thanksgiving outreach is its main event.
The non-profit organization of police, firefighters, neighbors and business leaders works with Christ Fellowship to provide thousands of boxed Thanksgiving meals to those in need. Each includes all the Thanksgiving staples: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce and pumpkin bread.
New this year, the brigade is putting on six family-style meals around Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast. President Dean Morehouse said he wants to ramp up the dinners next year, because they give volunteers a better opportunity to talk with the people they’re serving.
“The impact is greater. When you can break bread with them, there’s always a story you didn’t expect,” Morehouse said.
Morehouse and Big Heart Brigade Founder Tom DeRita’s friendship had an unlikely beginning: A Costco manager had promised them the same leftover baked goods, and they quibbled over who should get what. (Morehouse was picking them up for St. George’s Center in Riviera Beach.)
“We did an equitable distribution there on site. We still like each other,” Morehouse quipped.
Teams of volunteers have prepped close to 2 million dinners since 1992, he said. Corporations, families and teens give their free time to mash potatoes, scoop stuffing and pluck turkeys behind Palm Beach Gardens Fire Station 63 on Northlake Boulevard.
The brigade has been cooking and packaging meals for 15 years, when it moved operations from outside Fire Station 61 on Burns Road by City Hall, DeRita and Morehouse said.
The 22- to 24-pound turkeys are cooked for 4½ hours on propane-powered grills that can each hold 100 birds at a time. Church ladies bake the pumpkin bread all summer long and freeze it for safe-keeping.
Volunteers deliver the meals to people, many in Pahokee and Belle Glade, on Thanksgiving Day and offer to pray with them.
Meal-prep volunteer spots are listed online and fill up fast, and once people start helping, it becomes a tradition. Honda Classic Executive Director Ken Kennerly and his wife, for example, have been pitching in for 10 years, Morehouse said. A team from the golf tournament’s Honda Classic Cares charitable arm helped with the meal prep Tuesday.
Kurt Johnson led a crew of 16 people from Hunter Baptist Church who drove 14 hours from Elizabethton, Tenn., to lend their hands for the week. The youngest, 6-year-old Carson Buckles, helped wash buckets after mashed potatoes in them with a power drill.
His dad, Jack, has come for four years in a row. It was hard veering from tradition, but the family wanted to serve together, mom Jodi Buckles said.
“We’re pretty much thrown into it wherever they need us,” she said. “Every aspect of it is so important. Young or old, everybody gets a job.”
Johnson used to live locally and moved away. The first year he led a volunteer team, he wanted to train them to replicate the work of the Big Heart Brigade in Tennessee. But they liked it too much here.
Ivana Bertuzzelli said three days of working side-by-side has created camaraderie among her coworkers from Intech Investments, and the event is a great way to kick-start the giving season. There are so many great causes, but they like the local impact of the Big Heart Brigade, she said.
Each full meal costs about $2 to make, thanks to the help of business and community partnerships. The Weisberg Family Foundation has pledged a matching grant of $35,000 this year.
For the third year in a row, the Big Heart Brigade is about $20,000 short on the cash it needs to make the meals. Two years ago, organizers chalked it up to the turkey shortage that the bird flu caused. Last year, it was part of the normal ebb and flow of donations.
This year, some foundations that would normally support the brigade put the money toward Hurricane Irma relief instead, Morehouse said. Donations are still coming in online and from supporters up north.
Suppliers always extend the brigade credit, and they always get paid, he said.
“God’s provided every year for us,” Morehouse said.
Big Heart Brigade by the numbers
Volunteers will cook:
-7,500 pounds of green beans
-4,400 pounds of cranberry sauce
-3,600 pounds of stuffing
-2,150 pounds of potatoes
-530 gallons of gravy