As Thanksgiving ushers in U.S. holiday season, Americans give back

President Obama and daughter Sasha volunteering at D.C. Central Kitchen in Washington (© AP Images)
President Obama and his daughter Sasha (right) join other volunteers to prepare meals at D.C. Central Kitchen in Washington. (© AP Images)

Thanksgiving is a day when Americans gather with family and friends to celebrate and give thanks for life’s abundance. It’s also the start of their winter holiday season.

Observed on the fourth Thursday of November, Thanksgiving is an annual reminder to reach out to those in need, which for many Americans means volunteering at soup kitchens or donating to food banks. Some participate in food drives organized by local businesses or by their churches, synagogues, mosques or temples.

President Obama and his family are a part of this growing tradition. Since 2008, the Obamas have spent part of their Thanksgiving Day preparing holiday meals at Washington-area soup kitchens or distributing food at one of the city’s food banks, working alongside other volunteers.

College basketball players serving food at a community center on Thanksgiving Day (© AP Images)
University of Texas of the Permian Basin basketball players help Salvation Army volunteers serve food on Thanksgiving Day at the Corps Community Center in Odessa, Texas. (© AP Images)

In his 2015 Thanksgiving Day proclamation, the president said that a tradition of giving continues to inspire this holiday, and at shelters and food centers, “the inherent selflessness and common goodness of the American people endures.”

Americans “are all united in appreciation of the bounty of our nation,” he said. “Let us express our gratitude by welcoming others to our celebrations and recognize those who volunteer today to ensure a dinner is possible for those who might have gone without.”

That spirit of fellowship animates volunteers at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), one of the largest mosques and Muslim nonprofit organizations in the Washington suburbs. During Thanksgiving and other holidays, ADAMS volunteers serve hot meals at homeless shelters. They also deliver bag lunches to needy people all year long.

The meals are available to anyone — not just Muslims, explains Farhanahz Ellis, ADAMS’ interfaith and outreach director. “We believe that need has no religion, no gender, no color,” she says.

Some nonprofit groups sponsor activities that attract new volunteers and resources to their cause. In Austin, Texas, Operation Turkey — whose volunteers cook, pack and deliver hot meals to needy people at Thanksgiving — holds an annual golf tournament to raise money for its charitable mission.

Utah Food Bank, a Salt Lake City–based nonprofit that fights hunger throughout the state of Utah, has its own annual fundraising event: the Utah Human Race, held on Thanksgiving Day since 2005.

People posing wearing running clothing (Courtesy of Utah Food Bank)
Scott Jensen (left) and his entire family participate in the Utah Human Race on Thanksgiving Day. (Courtesy photo)

The race, whose motto is “Run with an attitude of gratitude,” has become a tradition for many families in Utah, says spokeswoman Heidi Cannella. “We typically have approximately 6,000 people joining us every year on Thanksgiving morning,” she says.

The Utah Human Race has a stroller division, too, so it’s open to participants of all ages and abilities, adds Cannella.

Utah Food Bank is a member of the Feeding America network, the largest charitable hunger-relief organization in the United States. In 2015, Utah Food Bank distributed over 37.5 million pounds of food — the equivalent of more than 31 million meals.

Everyone has a role to play in fighting hunger, Cannella explains. That’s why Utah Food Bank welcomes the efforts of kids as well as adults.

Students under age 12 can decorate food boxes that are delivered to homebound and elderly clients, while “older students contribute to all of our volunteer opportunities and projects: assembling food boxes, delivering prepared food boxes, repackaging bulk food that has been donated, or any number of other projects, as needed.”

Lending a hand, at Thanksgiving and year-round, is hugely rewarding, says Cannella: “Witnessing the outpouring of generosity from our community, every single day, makes you realize just how important [this] work is.”