Family serves the hungry, a sense of duty passed down

Lawyer John Yanchunis, his wife and their five children, including Johnny, behind his father, and Joe, far right, make it a family tradition to serve the hungry at Thanksgiving.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Lawyer John Yanchunis, his wife and their five children, including Johnny, behind his father, and Joe, far right, make it a family tradition to serve the hungry at Thanksgiving.

ST. PETERSBURG — John Yanchunis spent a big part of Thanksgiving with his five children.

Just not how you'd probably picture it.

Instead of watching parades on TV or simply chatting, the Yanchunises spent the day serving turkey and the trimmings to hundreds of homeless people at the St. Vincent de Paul food center.

It's a ritual more than 10 years running. First it was Yanchunis and his wife, Mary. The kids joined when they became old enough to help out.

Now, it's tradition. Like turkey. And pumpkin pie.

"In this day and age, there is much need out there," said Yanchunis.

Cliche though it may be, he said he's trying to leave the world a better place. And no matter how small the effort, "I believe it has a rippling effect."

On this day, Yanchunis thanks his parents, two Air Force veterans, for the mind-set. They were active in volunteering at the various military bases where the family was stationed and worked to help end segregation in the South during the 1960s.

His father retired after working at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Yanchunis completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Florida in 1976, then went to law school at South Texas College of Law. He graduated magna cum laude in 1980.

He worked for a federal judge in Texas and then moved to St. Petersburg in 1982.

He is a senior partner with a Tampa law firm that specializes in consumer law.

It's a specialty that jibes with Yanchunis' compassion for the underdog because, as he says, the elderly and poor are frequently victims of fraud. Yanchunis sees it as his duty to protect them.

He started volunteering as a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, helping people find the assistance they needed.

"Over the course of time, that kind of morphed into volunteering here," Yanchunis said.

Later, it included getting the whole family involved.

The two oldest boys, Johnny, 23, and Joe, 22, have graduated from college and moved away, but "when they come back for the holidays, this is part of our family tradition," Yanchunis said.

It's a tradition that both Johnny and Joe say they find worthwhile.

"It's definitely humbling," Joe said. "This is something I want to continue to do."

Patricia Waltrich, executive director of the South Pinellas District Council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, said volunteers are always welcome, but especially so at the holidays.

Normally, she said, the homeless people who come to the food center stand in line to get their meals. But on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, the center relies on volunteers to wait on them.

"It's a matter of showing their value as individuals and providing them the dignity of being served a meal," Waltrich said.

It's a way of showing love, she said. And some of the 65 or so volunteers who helped serve meals this year are like the Yanchunises, regulars who "have come back year after year after year," she said.

Family serves the hungry, a sense of duty passed down 11/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 26, 2009 10:59pm]

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