Marianne Keyros whisked the contents of two gigantic stainless steel stockpots on a commercial stove Wednesday afternoon in the kitchen of the Jennifer Gardens Assisted Living Facility. "Gravy!" she announced. "This is two of what's going to be six pots." While the smell of Thanksgiving filled the room, there was something else in the air: the gift of giving. "We saved all the drippings from all the turkeys," Keyros said, proudly. "It's real gravy." Keyros is one part — and a big part at that — of the Community Service Council of West Pasco's holiday feast for families in need.
Before many people rolled out of bed to put their own turkeys in the oven, volunteers started arriving at 6 a.m. this morning at the facility on Oak Trail, to form an assembly line to plate and package meals for nearly 700 people. Drivers will deliver the hot home-cooked meals to hundreds of people from Spring Hill in Hernando County to Tarpon Springs in Pinellas County, to anyone who said they needed a helping hand.
The meals are delivered straight from the kitchen, Keyros noted, because "we realized one year that a lot of them don't have stoves."
About four years ago, facility owners Vish and Sero Singh had a vision of giving back to the community that has been so good to them for a decade. They pitched the Thanksgiving meal plan to the Community Service Council, of which Sero Singh is currently president, and it became a reality.
"Every year we're growing," Sero Singh said.
Today, they are feeding about 310 families, or 1,400 people. They've noticed the families are getting larger: Instead of two or three people under one roof, there are more extended families of 10 or 12.
Each person will get a full meal of several slices of turkey — both white and dark meat — and all the fixings, including mashed potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole, dinner rolls, cranberry sauce, pumpkin or apple pie, and of course, gravy.
"Basically, they just can't afford a meal," Sero Singh said of the recipients.
The delivered feasts are truly a community effort. Applications were taken by the Pasco School District, the Volunteer Way food bank, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and PACE Center for Girls, to name a few. Donations were given by many businesses, including Medfleet, The Medicine Shoppe and Home Helpers. And other local facilities participated in cooking and delivering meals: Atria Evergreen Woods, Baypoint Village and Windsor Woods, Regency Residence, Sunshine Christian Homes, Madison Pointe Rehabilitation and Health Center, The Cottages of Port Richey, Emeritus at La Casa Grande, Forest Glen Lodge and Bayonet Point Health and Rehabilitation Center. A slew of volunteers cooked, assembled and will deliver meals this morning.
"This county is unreal when it comes to volunteering for the community," said Vish Singh.
While many volunteers like Char Corso, owner of Cruise Planners, and embroidery shop owners Judy and David Jones are members of the service council, others like recent retirees Susan and Mimo Naitza, of Wesley Chapel, are not.
"I have the time and I never had that before," said Susan Naitza, who was slicing pumpkin pie Wednesday afternoon and packaging individual slices. "People are less fortunate than me."
The Jennifer Gardens crew prepares about half of the meals. They started cooking 30 turkeys, weighing about 14 pounds apiece, in their only oven Monday, Keyros said.
"We did them two at a time round the clock," she said, adding they cooked the last turkeys Tuesday. "Round and round we go."
Some of the homes they deliver meals to don't have electricity, and some aren't homes at all. They have delivered to homeless shelters and even tents, said Vish Singh.
Sero Singh recalls one of the first homes she delivered to with a single mom and three children, including a baby.
"They were opening things up right away," she said. "The kids were so excited to get that meal."
And last year, one delivery driver was bringing meals to a family in mobile home park when people in other homes started coming outside asking for help. The volunteers delivered Thanksgiving dinner to the whole park, preparing about 30 more meals to fill the void.
Another driver had a heartbreaking experience.
"Last year, one of the ladies' houses was being foreclosed on and there was a sheriff's deputy in the driveway," said Keyros. "She was getting evicted on Thanksgiving."
The hope is with these dinners, at least for a little while, families will get a little bit of comfort.
"We can only make a small dent with people's lives," said Vish Singh. "We only do one out of 365 days."