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Enough to Go Around

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It says a mouthful about the Giving Heart's annual Thanksgiving Feast at the Greater Richmond Convention Center that there are always more than enough community volunteers to help out. “In fact, every year we turn potential volunteers away,” says Vicki Neilson, chief organizer for the annual holiday dinner, which feeds 90 percent of the city's homeless population and is open to all.

“The attraction is that people are coming together and giving something back,” she says. “It really says a lot about the Richmond community that we have so many volunteers who want to help with this.”

For the past four years, Neilson and her staff at the nonprofit Giving Heart foundation have overseen this charity feast, which takes three days of prep and sees the convention center transformed into a grand banquet hall to feed nearly 3,000 folks — anyone who wants company during their Thanksgiving meal. The excess food goes to area homeless shelters.

This year, companies such as Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods Market and Del Monte have come through for the feast with targeted food drives and donated sustenance. But it's the grassroots community response to the meal that warms the heart. “We had this one girl who planned her 30th birthday party,” Neilson says. “Instead of gifts, she had her guests donate to us.” Thanks to that party, the Giving Heart has added more than 500 giving bags to the items normally given to the needy in conjunction with the dinner.

New to the event will be two satellite shuttle buses that will transport people to and from the event. Giving Heart also recently initiated a good ambassador program in which young people get 10 community service credits for helping. The next step is to take the love generated by the feast and spread it around throughout the year.

“We are going to do something once a month, identifying people in need,” Neilson says. “Maybe do a Valentine's Day thing or work through senior homes.” The turkey dinner, slated for Nov. 26, is open to everyone, she says. “I don't like labels. We serve everyone — from college students that can't get home to seniors to people who are homeless. There are no religious or political connotations to this. Our mission is simply to provide food and fellowship.”

The Giving Heart Community Thanksgiving Feast will be held at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, Third and Marshall streets, Nov. 26 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Free admission and parking. For information, call 749-4726 or visit www.thegivingheart.org.

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