MANATEE — Late tonight, Jim McKee will fire up the ovens at the Salvation Army to begin the culinary marathon that will culminate in the group’s annual free Thanksgiving dinner.
McKee, the organization’s food services manager, and his crew of volunteers will prepare between 150 and 200 turkeys for an expected crowd of 600 people who have nowhere else to go for the holiday.
On the side, they will pile mounds of mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing and cornbread.
Meanwhile, downtown, the First United Methodist Church and its partners — Trinity, Manatee and Faith UMCs — will be hard at work on their own free meal, except their entree of choice will be pork tenderloin.
It will be a day of giving from donors and volunteers and thanks from Manatee County people who are truly in need. First United Methodist Church for lunch, the Salvation Army for dinner.
In a way, the Thanksgiving dinner preparations signal the beginning of Manatee County’s unofficial season of charity, a time for nonprofit organizations and individuals to concentrate their efforts to help the needy through the holidays and store up funds and materials they can use throughout the year.
But McKee’s planning for Thursday’s dinner in particular offers a glimpse into what Manatee’s charitable organizations might expect this holiday season. He says he will have enough food on hand to feed 1,000, almost twice as many as last year, just in case the need is greater than expected.
The reason? Visits to the Salvation Army’s nightly free meal is up 30 percent to 40 percent from past years to almost 300 people, according to Maj. Robert Parker, the organization’s area coordinator for Manatee County.
Fortunately, the need has not yet overwhelmed the supply.
“We’re very appreciative of what people give us,” McKee said. “Every time we think things are going wrong, it goes right. We might be in tough times, but people always come through for us.”
But Thanksgiving is one day.
What does the upcoming holiday season hold for an increasing number of area people navigating an economic wasteland of unemployment and homelessness?
That’s what Manatee County’s charitable organizations are facing as they adjust to skyrocketing need and dwindling donations brought on by economic struggles.
“It’s going to be very tough for a lot of people,” said Kristen Theisen, the chief development officer for Meals on Wheels PLUS, which runs the Food Bank of Manatee. “It’s going to be tough for the nonprofits who are trying to help them because people just aren’t able to give as much as they have in the past.”
Sometimes, though, charitable groups get a pleasant surprise. Greg Witham, the Manatee County coordinator for the Toys for Tots program run by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, said he was stunned last holiday season when the community came through with 30,000 toys that gave 6,500 kids a brighter Christmas.
“Last year, we really expected to have a problem,” Witham said. “But the people who had the capacity to do it really stepped up. We had one of our best years.”
The charitable season is an important time for nonprofit organizations, which collect as much as 60 percent of their annual revenue between Thanksgiving and two weeks into January, according to Bobbi Larson, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross Manatee Division.
That’s why the recession threatens a double whammy for those in need. Not only are there more people requiring charitable services, there are fewer resources for the organizations to access.
Theisen said Meals on Wheels PLUS handed out more than 2 million pounds of food through October, already more than in all of 2008.
Donations are off slightly, but needs are still being met, she said.
“It’s kind of heartwarming that people are trying to help even if they can’t give as much as they would like. It makes us appreciate our donors even more,” Theisen said.
The Salvation Army is the most visible charitable group during the holiday season with its bell ringers and bright, red Christmas kettles. The kettle program began Nov. 13 at more than 30 locations in Manatee.
Parker said the organization hopes to raise about $200,000 from the kettles, almost 10 percent of its annual operating budget. But a holiday turkey collection drive is expected to net 1,300 turkeys that will last far into next year.
“It is a time of good income for us that we can use to fund all the programs we have at Christmas but for the rest of the year as well,” Parker said.
The food pantry at St. Joseph Catholic Church is preparing 2,600 Thanksgiving food bags to distribute Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. The number has increased 500 from last year.
Deacon Bob Nimon said there are always donations coming in, often exactly when they’re needed most and from unlikely sources, like a donor who recently dropped off 200 loaves of bread.
“We’ve got to replace what goes in the bags,” Nimon said. “It’s never-ending. We always need donations. We’re always looking for nonperishable food donations or monetary donations.
“I’m an optimist. We are a faith-based food pantry. We say we’re doing the work of the Lord, and he will provide for us. We’re blessed and because of that the people who come to our food pantry are blessed.”
Some business owners are straining to help the charitable organizations this holiday season even though they face challenges of their own.
Thomas Newbeck, owner of Body Effects Tattoos on 14th Street West, is offering a $10 gift certificate for a tattoo or body piercing with every donation of a new, unwrapped toy at the Toys for Tots box he picked up for his business.
Newbeck said he decided to become a Toys for Tots donation site for the first time after hearing from customers about their struggles and feeling the effects of the recession himself. He said his Bradenton house is nearing foreclosure, and a brother is struggling with Factor V, an inherited blood-clot disease that claimed his mother in 1986.
“It was either keep my business or keep my house,” said Newbeck, 43, who moved to Bradenton from Long Island in 1996 and opened the tattoo shop in 2003.
“The economy’s really bad. I’m suffering myself, but I’m staying afloat. You hear stories from people when you sit down and talk with them. I was thinking, ‘Man, I’ve got to help these people out. I know for a fact we can make a difference in people’s lives.”