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Thanksgiving tradition: Volunteers help meet high demand

SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG
Seven-year-old volunteer Miriam Moranda, helps Pedro Brito as they walk through the food line during the Merced Rescue Mission's annual Thankgiving Day giveaway, Thursday, November 26, 2009 at the Veterans Memorial Hall.
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG Seven-year-old volunteer Miriam Moranda, helps Pedro Brito as they walk through the food line during the Merced Rescue Mission's annual Thankgiving Day giveaway, Thursday, November 26, 2009 at the Veterans Memorial Hall. Merced Sun-Star

The Merced Rescue Mission's annual Thanksgiving Day giveaway set two records this year.

One was predictable -- an estimated 5,000 people turned out for the free food and clothing handed out by mission workers and volunteers at Veterans Memorial Hall.

With joblessness up and spirits down, the all-time turnout reflected the bleak economic climate throughout the county.

The more surprising number: 237 people signed up to volunteer this year. "It's great so many in the community do this," said mission CEO Herb Opalek. "But it's unfortunate we have so many hungry."

The veteran nonprofit leader said the mission began November with only two dozen turkeys on hand. Weeks of pleading -- including an early-morning stint at a Save Mart parking lot with KABX's Dave Luna -- led to a surplus of 400 birds.

The mission gave 100 to the Merced Food Bank, 100 to Hilmar Helping Hands, 100 to LoveInc. and the last 100 to a variety of groups helping the needy.

A line began forming hours before the hall doors opened at 10 a.m. Nearly two hours later, people still waited for a block down Main Street in warm sunshine.

Inside, Police Chief Norm Andrade donned white plastic gloves to serve dark turkey meat for several hours. Supervisor Hub Walsh learned the Spanish word for sweet potato, "camote," and business picked up at his station. City Councilman John Carlisle handed out bottles of water and juice.

Eddie Ybarra, a retired trucker, drove all the way from Coulterville in the Sierra foothills to spoon gravy onto hundreds of plates.

Onstage, as hundreds of hungry dined on folding chairs, a choir from the Church of God in Christ, a Mennonite denomination, sang carols and songs. About 30 came from Ballico and Winton, said Sheldon Jantz, a member of the congregation.

The mission planned to feed some 500 in Los Banos later in the day and another in Planada. Workers also intended to hand out plates to some of the homeless along Black Rascal Creek.

Opalek reckoned that fundraising efforts left the mission just under $500 in the hole from the food and clothing giveaway.

"We're doing it again on Christmas at the Presbyterian Church," he said. "We'll need help for that."

Executive editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

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