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Volunteer assembly line packs 2,000 Thanksgiving meals to go

Marisa Casado, 54, of New Tampa runs the assembly line and makes sure nonperishable foods are boxed. Volunteers package about 100 Thanksgiving dinners every 10 minutes, she says.

CANDACE BRAUN | Times

Marisa Casado, 54, of New Tampa runs the assembly line and makes sure nonperishable foods are boxed. Volunteers package about 100 Thanksgiving dinners every 10 minutes, she says.

NEW TAMPA

Sorting truckloads of canned vegetables and other nonperishable foods into 100 Thanksgiving feasts sounds like it could take all day.

Try 10 minutes.

In an hour and a half, volunteers built 665 cardboard boxes, loaded them with cranberry sauce, instant mashed potatoes and other nonperishable holiday foods and stacked them in storage trailers.

It took three weekend afternoons to complete all 2,000 — more than they've ever prepared before — and they worked faster than they ever had.

More than 50 people met last weekend at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in New Tampa. Along with others, they will come together again Saturday to add a loaf of bread and a frozen turkey to each box, then deliver the meals to underprivileged families in the Tampa Bay area.

"We call it 'organized chaos,' " said Patrick Doone, president of St. Mark the Evangelist's chapter of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a nonprofit dedicated to aiding those in need within the community.

St. Vincent de Paul organizes the annual food drive, although volunteers from various churches and schools across the county participate.

Now in its 11th year, the drive has grown increasingly complex from the 35 people it initially served. And like other major organizations, someone manages each aspect to ensure that the drive runs smoothly.

Marisa Casado, 54, is behind the speedy box stocking and has been streamlining the process for the past three years.

"Some people tease me and say, 'You were in the military, get these people in shape,' " said Casado, who retired from the Army Reserves in August. "I think it's just my personality, though. I like things organized."

Casado's line operates with a drill sergeant's precision, as each volunteer is given a specific task. At one station, people inspect and sort food into different categories. In another, boxes are constructed. Then, at the main assembly line, which spans the length of a semitrailer, volunteers on one side keep the various foods in stock while the other side puts them in boxes.

Casado might be organized, but she tries to keep things lighthearted.

Every fifteen minutes or so, she calls for the latest box count, cheering and clapping as she hears the number.

"I try to be funny with it, like at the beginning of the day I yelled, 'Only 665 left,' " she said.

Though it takes less than a minute to fill each box with food, preparing for a Thanksgiving feast to feed 2,000 families takes months.

In August, church volunteers called schools throughout the Tampa Bay area, asking local guidance counselors and social workers to provide lists of families in need. Some participating churches, including Christ the King Catholic Church in South Tampa, call people from a database of those they've assisted in the past.

Some food drive organizers worried that this year's event would have to be scaled back, despite increased need in the community. The number of people receiving donations from the St. Mark food pantry has more than doubled because of the recession, said Pam Smith, secretary of the St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Mark.

But donors have stepped up to meet the need.

"Every year, something unbelievable happens that helps everything come together," she said.

On delivery day last year, as outreach groups and volunteers gathered at St. Mark to distribute the meals, a man showed up with 100 frozen turkeys, Smith said. Volunteers turned to the leftover canned goods, which normally go to the food pantry, and were able to provide 100 extra meals.

This year, an anonymous donor gave the group $15,000, which paid for most of the 2,000 turkeys, Smith said.

"That and some of our business partnerships really put us in a position to get this done," she said.

For many return volunteers, Saturday could mark the best day of the food drive — and not because their months of work are over.

About 200 to 300 people are expected to gather at St. Mark, 9724 Cross Creek Blvd. Some will load cars or deliver four or five meals to households. Others will aid the 20 to 30 outreach groups that collect hundreds of boxes to distribute at their own organizations.

"When you deliver the boxes, the little kids get so excited," said Emily Stonesifer, 16, a junior at Freedom High School. "It's great, but it's also hard to see people in that much need, and see little kids so excited over food."

Candace Braun can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

Volunteer assembly line packs 2,000 Thanksgiving meals to go 11/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 19, 2009 3:30am]

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