When Operation Turkey founder Richard Bagdonas gave away his Thanksgiving leftovers to a homeless man in downtown Austin back in 2000, he didn’t realize what he was putting into motion.
The next year, he gave away two full meals; just five years later, his officially named Operation Turkey had grown to include a dedicated corps of volunteers, and the number of donated meals had risen to more than 500. By 2010, they provided a fully prepared Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings to 4,000 Austinites in need.
That same year, Bagdonas handed over Operation Turkey to current director Brian Tolbert, and the movement hasn’t slowed down. This year, Tolbert expects the group to provide 75,000 meals to people in 22 cities across the country, including Austin. It’s a huge undertaking that wouldn’t be possible without the help of 25,000 volunteers and plenty of generous donations from individuals and businesses. There are no paychecks at Operation Turkey, and Tolbert works a full-time paying job in addition to his volunteer work.
“We pay a five percent fee to a foundation that holds the money for us, and that’s it,” Tolbert says. “Everything else goes toward buying, preparing and delivering the meals. Not every organization can say that 95 percent of every dollar you donate goes toward feeding someone.”
Tolbert grew up in Bastrop as part of a large extended family with its own Thanksgiving tradition. Each year, he delivered leftovers from his family’s feast to neighbors and others in the community who otherwise would have gone without. The Tolbert family didn’t have a lot of money, but everybody worked hard harvesting from his grandmother’s garden to produce the farm-fresh, high-quality food found on the table and shared with neighbors. Tolbert says he naturally gravitated toward Operation Turkey as an adult and was ready when Bagdonas asked him to take over the operation.
“I said ‘yes’ immediately,” he says. “I vowed then to add a city every year, and we have 22 cities now. Maybe on down the road, the board will have to cut back or hold steady because we don’t want to get to a point where we’re not a 100 percent volunteer organization. But for now, we’re still growing. I never stop thinking about it…we started working on this year’s event on Thanksgiving night of last year.”
Find out more at operationturkey.com or call 866-678-8751.
By Clay Coppedge