CHAMPAIGN — A Thanksgiving food giveaway at Salt and Light Ministries provided holiday meals for needy families — with one turkey to spare.
The Christian-based charity handed out 735 Thanksgiving dinners as part of its weekly food pantry on Wednesday — turkeys, mashed potatoes, vegetables, rolls, pumpkins and other fixings.
Last year's Thanksgiving event drew 803 people, with only about 500 turkey dinners available.
This year, individuals began lining up as early as 5 a.m. for the 1 p.m. event.
Altogether, 819 households received food Wednesday. Some clients picked up food for other people, but "you had to be there today to pick up a turkey," said Executive Director Nathan Montgomery.
Salt and Light had planned to give out 700 turkeys but ended up with 736.
The extra bird?
"We just threw it in the freezer," he said.
Volunteers gave out tickets starting at 9 a.m., assigning clients to a specific pickup time so they didn't have to wait outside for hours, Montgomery said. By 1:15 p.m., they had already handed out almost 400 tickets.
"It's crazy," he said.
Peggy Elkins of Paxton showed up at 5 a.m. anyway. She picks up food every week for five relatives and friends who have cancer or kidney disease and can't get there themselves. Her back seat and trunk were full of food, though as a proxy she couldn't take turkeys.
Elkins, whose brother has cancer, said she's not sure what they would do without Salt and Light.
"I'm just thankful for it," agreed another client, Melody Wilson of Champaign, who has two children. "Right now I'm unemployed and struggling to make ends meet."
Malika Meeks of Urbana, who was there with her daughter, 10-month-old Solay Davis, said the free holiday meal will allow her to invite a few friends over for Thanksgiving. She said she had a job but was laid off for medical reasons.
"They do an awesome job throughout the year," she said of Salt and Light. "The times when I don't have money or food stamps, I know I'll have food."
Rod Dering, a retired construction worker, said the turkey and fixings will allow him and his wife to have a Thanksgiving meal together.
"It fills a great big need, not only for me but everyone else," Dering said, hugging a familiar volunteer. "It's a fantastic thing they do."
The event was a partnership with Supervalu, which provided the Thanksgiving food at a discount; Horizon Hobby and its employees, who donated $6,000; and the Mahomet IGA, which sold 150 "Feed a Family a Thanksgiving Meal for $15" packages to its customers.
"I've had people stopping in off the street today and dropping off a check for $15 or $30," Montgomery added.
Supervalu provided the turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and vegetables, and Salt and Light supplemented with rolls, pumpkins, muffins, fresh fruit and other items from its normal Wednesday food distribution, he said.
Montgomery said the holiday giveaway is an opportunity for volunteers to get involved, and a chance for clients to get not only food but "a glimmer of hope."
"It's more than just putting food on their table," he said. "We do this every week."
He said volunteers and clients who are there on a regular basis — from different towns, religions or racial backgrounds — have gotten to know each other and formed a "kind of Salt and Light family."
"These are people who may not get to know each other otherwise," he said.
"It's just so much fun to be a part of. You get something from giving back that you just can't get anywhere else."