The Perfect Enemy | People’s Turkey Drive ‘back on track’ after COVID hiatus
December 1, 2022
Read Time:4 Minute

When it was time to get back in gear, Nina Zamora-Ojeda was ready.

Normally, making up the list of hundreds of families for the volunteers is a lot of work, but this year, she just knocked it out.

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“It was exciting. It felt really good,” Zamora-Ojeda, 42, said. “It just feels good to have everybody here.”

The People’s Turkey Drive — which she organizes with East Chicago friends Juan Fernandez and Jason Reyes — is back this year, after a two-year break due to the COVID pandemic, delivering meals to about 800 families.

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Dozens volunteered over the weekend at the Wicker Park Pavilion in Highland, packing boxes including mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green beans, and cornbread.

The turkeys, purchased from Mariano’s in Joliet, were slated to arrive Sunday before they started deliveries.

There were obstacles. Grocery prices increased. Turkeys and mashed potatoes were hard to find in bulk. Initially, many smaller donations were not coming in.

Jaime Sustain, 12, gets a box of stuffing from Grace Morin while putting together Thanksgiving meals as part of the Peoples Turkey Drive at the Wicker Park Pavilion in Highland, Indiana Saturday November 19, 2022. The drive is in its tenth year and hopes to provide nearly 1,000 free holiday meals for needy people. (Andy Lavalley for the Post-Tribune)

Despite it, they preserved. The drive itself takes about three months to plan and cost about $22,000-$23,000 this year, Reyes said. A group from Franciscan Alliance donated $5,000, a spokeswoman said.

Organizers get names of folks in need from North Township, churches, schools, and some of their own volunteers. The Gary Housing Authority gave over 200 names, Reyes said. Valparaiso Community Schools gave 80.

A single job loss could turn someone’s fortunes. One volunteer donated $100, only to receive a meal themselves after an unexpected layoff.

Twelve years ago, when they started, they packed 34 Thanksgiving meals, Reyes said. Their goal has been 1,000 meals. If they don’t make it this year, they’ll try again for next year.

Volunteers work around a table full of bags to be used for Thanksgiving meals at the Peoples Turkey Drive at the Wicker Park Pavilion in Highland, Indiana Saturday November 19, 2022. The drive is in its tenth year and hopes to provide nearly 1,000 free holiday meals for needy people. (Andy Lavalley for the Post-Tribune)

In addition to packing meals, volunteers man phones to make sure families are home for deliveries.

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They are taking turkey dinners all over Northwest Indiana, including Gary, Portage, East Chicago, Hammond, Highland, Merrillville, Schererville and into Porter County and Lansing, Illinois, co-organizer Juan Fernandez said.

The last year has been an “emotional wreck” personally and they were just happy to get it started again, he said. Fernandez likened the struggle to the Avengers fighting Thanos. In the end, the volunteers were like the portal opening, saving the day.

Andy Garza, 51, of Tinley Park, originally from East Chicago’s Indiana Harbor section, said he knew the organizers through mutual friends. He first got involved several years ago making a donation on behalf of his company, El Oso Construction. Now that’s grown into a tradition, where he encourages employees and brings his kids, ages 30 to 7, and even his grandson to volunteer.

“It’s a matter of helping out people who have helped us out over the years,” he said.

Marili Franco, Darryl Bonhama and Isidro Guadarrama (L-R) prepare canned beans and corn for Thanksgiving meals as part of the Peoples Turkey Drive at the Wicker Park Pavilion in Highland, Indiana Saturday November 19, 2022. The drive is in its tenth year and hopes to provide nearly 1,000 free holiday meals for needy people. (Andy Lavalley for the Post-Tribune)

Elsewhere, several teens volunteered.

Debra Bolanos, 64, executive director of the Xel-Ha Escuela de Danza (Xel-Ha Dance School) in East Chicago recruited some teenagers to volunteer, saying she wanted to help get the event “back on track”.

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“We all teach them to be thankful,” she said of her teens.

“You know, there’s a lot of people that are going through hard times,” she said. “They should appreciate what their parents are able to provide. Not everyone has that.”

mcolias@chicagotribune.com