Thanksgiving is going to be different this year, no doubt – and difficult for many. John Kalvaitis knows this. Beyond the grim toll on lives and health, the coronavirus is limiting what people can do, where they can go, whether they can see family members in person and, for millions who are out of work, what they can afford.
But everybody still has to eat. Everyone deserves a holiday meal. And Kalvaitis, chatting during a break at the Walgreens store he manages in northwest Houston, is crackling with energy knowing what he’s about to do … again.
“I just got off another call – we’re rounding up all the 460 turkeys we need,” he says, breathlessly busy and loving it.
This is what Thanksgiving has become over the last few years for Kalvaitis and other Walgreens employees in his orbit – an exhilarating chance to help others in large numbers as part of Operation Turkey, a multi-state volunteer effort that provides tens of thousands of holiday meals to those in need. Kalvaitis, who first participated at his wife’s suggestion in 2015, is now heavily involved in organizing the meal preparation and delivery for the Houston area, in addition to his day job at Walgreens.
Those 460 turkeys arrived Friday and were placed in refrigerated trucks to begin thawing. On Wednesday, they’ll be smoked and deboned at two sites – the VFW and American Legion posts in Houston’s Spring Branch neighborhood. During the 4½ to five hours the birds are cooking, volunteers will pop open thousands of cans of green beans, yams, corn and stuffing and portion them out into single-serving containers – along with mashed potatoes prepared and donated by a local church organization.
Starting at 8 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, it all comes together. Moving up and down rows of long tables, volunteers will place one serving of each item inside 8,000 clamshell containers – to be taken by the early afternoon to residences and shelters where meals have been requested through Operation Turkey’s website and phone line.
“It’s a big assembly line,” says Kalvaitis. “The last thing that goes in will be a piece of pumpkin pie, and then the clamshells go on the ‘done’ table. And at that point, outside, we’ll already have a line of cars going around the building with volunteers who have requested a certain number of meals to deliver – anywhere from two to 50, depending on the size of their vehicle. We run the meals out to their cars, along with bottles of water donated by Walgreens, and plastic cutlery. They have the addresses for delivery, and off they go to take it to where the people are.”
Kalvaitis has helped streamline the process for Houston this year, both for general efficiency and to adjust for the coronavirus. In previous years, there were four sites serving the area, not two. Last Thanksgiving, nearly 10,000 meals were prepped and delivered; this year, it’s capped at 8,000 because of restrictions on the number of volunteers. Only 50 people can work inside each location, unlike the 200 to 300 who helped in years past. On top of masks and social distancing, each volunteer must undergo a health screening and temperature check before being allowed in.
Among these Good Samaritans will be a half-dozen of Kalvaitis’ Walgreens co-workers, who refuse to let a pandemic stop them from returning to Operation Turkey. It’s not just Walgreens water and cardboard boxes that Kalvaitis brings (literally) to the table – it’s his people. And he doesn’t have to ask twice.
“Giving is something my family and I have always been passionate about,” says Andrea Harris (right, above), an assistant manager at Kalvaitis’ store who will help prepare food Wednesday and Thursday. “People have lost jobs this year and don’t know where their next meal is coming from. It’s an awesome feeling to be able to help them.”
Kate Jurgens (pictured second), a store manager in Spring, Texas, just north of Houston, has teamed with Kalvaitis for years on other local charity efforts. This year, her second with Operation Turkey, she’ll be doing both food prep and deliveries.
“Seeing the faces of people receiving the meals, they’re so happy and delighted – whole families, not just the kids,” Jurgens says. “It’s a big surprise for some of them. The excitement, the hope … there’s a glow they have, knowing that somebody really cares for them.”
Kalvaitis has seen it many times himself, starting with the first two meals he and his wife delivered to someone’s home five years ago.
A former hotel and restaurant manager, he especially feels for those in the service industry who now find themselves unemployed because of the pandemic. And he knows personally what it’s like to be in need.
“I came up from humble beginnings,” he says. “I’ve lived in a trailer. I’ve gone without food for days at a time. I’ve had Thanksgivings where I didn’t have a turkey. You drive around Houston and you see the homeless people downtown – dozens of people, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, through no fault of their own. I haven’t been homeless, but I’ve been in a situation where I didn’t have anything. And I’m in a situation now where I can help somebody out and put a smile on their face on Thanksgiving Day.
“I do it,” he stresses, “not for any kind of recognition, but because I genuinely care. And more than that, I think it’s a personal responsibility to help in this way. You can donate money to this or that, but with something like this, you’re actually giving back directly yourself.”
Do you have stories of other Walgreens team members making a difference in your community during the holidays? Share them with us by email at email@example.com.