Henderson's turkey giveaway helps 3,500 needy

E.J. Henderson (Rob Tringali/Getty)

E.J. Henderson's annual turkey giveaway in a North Minneapolis neighborhood hit by a tornado six months ago was a big success. The number of turkeys donated to families in need nearly tripled to 3,500 this year.

Estelle Jackson has lived in the North Minneapolis neighborhood most of her life. She wouldn't say exactly how long that's been – giving a brief pre-emptive lecture that it isn't polite to ask a woman her age – but suffice it to say the neighborhood has changed considerably since she first arrived as a child.

Jackson was spending her Tuesday morning in line at the Cub Foods on Broadway Avenue in North Minneapolis. As she maneuvered her scooter through the parking lot, she waved to friends and neighbors that were arriving for the Fourth Annual E.J. Henderson Turkey Giveaway – a crowd that spoke volumes because it not only snaked through the store inside, but the line outside stretched around the building – an impressive feat considering the size of the store.

She was one of 3,500 people that received a free turkey and side dish items for a Thanksgiving dinner, thanks to Henderson's foundation and a growing number of corporate sponsors. Like so many of her neighbors, she was in the line because, without the program, her Thanksgiving dinner may have been much different and the timing couldn't have been better.

"There are a lot of families in this neighborhood that are hurting," Jackson said. "We're just happy that we have one of God's special angels like E.J. Henderson who cares about people and uses his ability to get people together to do such a wonderful thing. Considering where we were six months ago, today is truly a blessing for a lot of families."

It was six months ago Tuesday that a tornado ripped through the neighborhood, killing one, injuring 30 and destroying a lot of homes. Jackson said her house was spared, but it sustained significant damage when 60-year old trees were snapped in half by the storm. At the time, there was very little to be thankful for other than that the death toll wasn't as large as it could have been. For a neighborhood that has seen a lot more pain than pleasure, Henderson's annual turkey giveaway was a sight for weary eyes.

Henderson said he came up with the idea for the giveaway for North Minneapolis because it is one of the poorest communities in the Twin Cities and in the most need of help. Henderson said it warms his heart to see the faces of the people in line who are extremely grateful for what the program has been able to provide.

"It's great to see so many people being able to get a meal for Thanksgiving," Henderson said. "I can't believe how much it has grown in just four years. To have so many sponsors come together to help out the cause and to see the need that is out there, it's gratifying to be able to help make Thanksgiving special for a lot of people."

The program has grown exponentially. In its first year, 300 turkeys were handed out. In the second year, that number spiked to 600 and included milk and vegetables. The number of turkeys doubled again last year, as 1,200 were given out despite sub-zero temperatures that kept numbers down. But that merely set the stage for this year's effort.

The number almost tripled to 3,500 this year, including a 12-13 pound turkey, a half gallon of milk, a bag of potatoes, a bag of onions, Rice and a pie crust. Event organizer Sherm Patterson said that the initiative to grow the program has been faith-based with every church regardless of denomination participating – from Catholics to Baptists to Muslims. Representatives from the city government, the State Legislature and the governor's office were in attendance.

Patterson said he has been shocked by the rapid growth of the event, but said it serves to show that when enough people come together with a singular vision and goal, much can be accomplished.

"It's been overwhelming," Patterson said. "E.J. has been sincere about this program since the start and it has been incredible to see how a community can work together to take care of those that might not otherwise have a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. You can put a price on the ingredients, but you can't put a price on being able to let a family have a Thanksgiving they can look back on fondly for years. It's awesome."

Henderson said that he couldn't have imagined how quickly the program would grow and how the number of families served would skyrocket. The fact that they went through all of this year's allotment spoke volumes, because clearly there was a need being met. That was the intent from the outset and E.J. said that the chrysalis of an idea has morphed into a program that has helped open awareness to a fundamental need in communities like North Minneapolis, as well as other areas throughout the state and the country.

"We wanted to put something together for the community in the community," Henderson said. "This was the best way to directly affect this community because one of the biggest problems here is starvation and lack of good nutrition. I wanted to try to do something that could address that problem and I figured giving a family a turkey for Thanksgiving would be a good start."

Cub Foods President Keith Wyche said his company has been a co-sponsor of the event because it sees the same problems that were the genesis of the E.J. Henderson Foundation and said that they, along with other community partners, have lofty humanitarian goals that they hope to achieve and events like this can perhaps open the eyes of those who don't know the level of hunger and malnutrition that exists in our own hometowns.

"One of the things we're trying to do is eradicate hunger in our lifetime," Wyche said. "It's really unfortunate that we live in a world where people would go without a Thanksgiving meal. We have an opportunity to help with that cause, and partnering with E.J. was a great opportunity to do that."

The event provided a welcome respite from the troubles that have existed in the North Minneapolis neighborhood in the six months since the tornado cut a swath through its midsection. He said that the same Cub Foods that was handing out turkeys Tuesday was a command post following the tornado six months ago and that many of the same people that showed up then showed up Tuesday. He said the neighborhood looks different, but the resolve of those who live there was shaken, but not broken.

"Six months ago we were handing out relief supplies to those whose lives were changed forever by the tornado," Wyche said. "But one thing about this community – tough times don't last, tough people do and these are some tough people here."

Patterson said the program is an unqualified success and promised that, despite continued growth, the best is still yet to come.

"This event has been something that the entire community has gotten involved in and it continues to grow and become something that has helped a lot of families," Patterson said. "I'll go out on a limb and say next year, we're going to shoot for 5,000 turkeys for the fifth anniversary of this program."

For his part, Henderson said he has been overwhelmed by the success of his brainchild that started with a truck and 300 turkeys and has grown so large that an assembly line of National Guard volunteers was needed to keep the lines moving smoothly. The National Guard was dispatched to the same neighborhood six months earlier for all the wrong reasons. This time they were there for all the right reasons and Henderson said he was enormously gratified to see what a large operation the event has become.

"It definitely puts a smile on your face," Henderson said. "We never could have imagined that this program would get this big. When you're talking 3,500 turkeys, you're talking about feeding 20,000 or 25,000 people. There are a lot of hungry folks out there and we're proud to be able to help out where we can."

Throughout the two-hour event, individuals dispersed with the makings of a Thanksgiving dinner that will truly make a difference in the lives of the recipients. Jackson summed up the feelings of many of the people who descended on the Cub Foods store Tuesday – one that will last long after the Thanksgiving meal has been enjoyed tomorrow.

"Everyone in this community is blessed to have someone like E.J. Henderson that cares," Jackson said. "What he has done for all of us here is outstanding. He's made his mama very proud."

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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