MANNA gives thanks

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The Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance is approaching its 20th anniversary of preparing and delivering meals to homebound individuals with life-threatening illnesses throughout Philadelphia, and its annual Thanksgiving dinner tradition is not that much younger.

Many are familiar with MANNA’s day-to-day commitment to the region, but some very special people donate time, sacrifice sleep and sometimes even drive great distances to volunteer for this annual celebration.

What’s special about this meal?

Everything.

The Thanksgiving dinner, for clients who subsist on MANNA’s regular deliveries, is a complete dinner for four with turkey, sweet potatoes, stuffing, gravy, vegetables, salad, cranberry sauce, bread and dessert. This year, MANNA prepared and delivered 2,100 pounds of turkey, 750 pounds of stuffing, 1,200 pounds of sweet potatoes, 800 pounds of vegetables, 75 gallons of gravy and 600 pies along with cranberry sauce, rolls and salad — enough to feed 600 families.

Cooking preparations began a week prior to the big day with the culmination on Thanksgiving morning at the MANNA kitchen, 2323 Ranstead St. Kitchen staff started arriving last Thursday at 4 a.m., while volunteers from as far away as Connecticut came in for three-hour shifts beginning at 6 a.m. It takes about 300 staff, volunteers and drivers to complete the entire process and, this year, all of the volunteer spots were filled about two weeks before Thanksgiving, according to Meg Rider, the agency’s director of events and communications. Rider added that MANNA’s annual Pie in the Sky sales were 25 percent less than they had expected.

Gerry Lipski and Randy Fox, who will celebrate their 20-year anniversary this month, have been volunteering at MANNA for 17 years — when there were only 17 clients. “We remember when some of these [volunteers] were only 6 or 7 years old when they first came with their parents, and they keep coming back to show their support,” Lipski said. “Everything went more smoothly than ever and the last drivers left before noon.”

The only break in the morning was when Mayor Nutter, his wife Lisa and state Rep. Dwight Evans (D-203rd Dist.) stopped by to show their support. MANNA CEO Richard Keaveney called the crowd together and joked, “This is the only time during the day when everyone is going to get to stop for two minutes before getting back to it, so savor it.” Keaveney praised the workers and announced that, thanks to funding work by Evans, regular meal deliveries will increase from 800 to 1,000 clients per week early next year.

This year’s holiday tradition was dedicated in memory of David Regnery for his support of MANNA’s nutrition program. Regnery, who died earlier this year, became involved with MANNA through his stepson Rob Saxon, MANNA director of volunteers and resource development.