How to Give Thanks by Giving Back
By karen rose, katrina concepcion, and jane kellogg
From food drives to shelter animals in need of human attention, Las Vegas has a cornucopia of opportunities for giving around the holidays. On Thanksgiving Day particularly, both locals and tourists have proven they’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that no one in our town goes hungry. For this story, we talked to some of the people doing just that: out-of-towners running for Three Square; a dog lover who shares her Thanksgiving with furry friends at The Animal Foundation; and a downtown filmmaker doing more than his fair share to serve free quality meals on this foodiest of holidays. Join us in giving thanks to these selfless Las Vegans who put the “giving” in Thanksgiving.
Showing Spirit - Turkey Day 5K
Las Vegas visitors outnumber residents at any one time by at least 60 to 1, and the number of tourists here last November topped three million. So what are civic-minded out-of-towners to do when they’re on the Strip for Thanksgiving, a holiday based around home-cooked food? Run a 5K race for Three Square, of course.
“A lot of the races we run involve charities,” says Sarah Williams of Saint Louis. Sarah’s the “health-conscious” one in the family; her husband, Mike, who serves on the community and philanthropy committee at his company back home, adds, “We try to do runs when we travel, to see the city from a different view.” So it follows that the couple would take part in “turkey trots,” Thanksgiving races that raise funds and collect food for local charities.
When they were vacationing in Las Vegas during the past Thanksgiving, Mike and Sarah ran in the Turkey Day 5K, which took place downtown. Participants were requested to bring cans of food to registration, and they delivered: 757 pounds of canned goods were collected for Three Square.
The only food bank and largest hunger-relief organization in Southern Nevada, Three Square works with its more than 600 program partners to provide meals to those in need. “Hunger is a year-round issue,” says Erica Thompson, director of corporate giving for the organization, which feeds 100,000 people in Southern Nevada every month. “But around the holidays, people really step up and want to give back. Canned food drives are very popular this time of year.”
The group will provide between 3,000 and 4,000 turkeys to its 200 direct-service agency partners (such as food pantries and soup kitchens) this Thanksgiving; during the 2011 holiday season it ran 163 food drives, collecting 300,000 pounds of canned goods.
As a bonus, turning up to help out can also mean quality time with friends and family. Race director Dominic Guinto says lots of groups and couples ran the race last year—some showing up at the starting line in full-on turkey costumes. The Williamses, who got into the spirit by running with colorful turkey headpieces, are active in philanthropy back home in St. Louis. “We volunteer to walk dogs or collect donations for disaster relief,” Mike says. But the races were Sarah’s idea. “It’s a great way to give back, and to start the holiday,” she says. “I’d like to do a race every Thanksgiving.”
Sharing the Love - The Animal Foundation
Not every animal has a home for the holidays, but for local furry friends waiting to be adopted, The Animal Foundation’s Lied Animal Shelter is theirs—at least temporarily. The 120-person staff is the only family they know, and that doesn’t change on Thanksgiving Day. “We can’t just leave the animals here and go on holiday,” says Amanda Baldridge, kennel supervisor. While Lied is closed to the public on this day, the morning crew is there from 5 am to 4 pm to ensure every dog, cat, rabbit, bird, horse, and reptile is taken care of. “Those with children or family gatherings leave around noon or 1 pm,” she says. “We even have a few dedicated volunteers come in on Thanksgiving Day—they take the dogs on walks and give them biscuits.”
Because the shelter houses 50,000 animals over the course of a year, the staff stays busy. “Typically we are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve, but we’ll still have employees here taking care of the animals,” says Director of Development Andy Bischel. He adds that Lied is the highest volume shelter in the country and must be staffed 24 hours a day.
An additional cadre of 800 active volunteers keep the shelter running; many of the animal-lovers who visit the facility with intentions of adopting end up getting so attached to the animals, they want to keep coming back to help. “People get worried about volunteering—that it will be too sad—but it won’t be,” Bischel says. “That 10 to 15 minutes it takes to walk a dog? That may be the first time the dog has been walked in its life. That’s special.”
Despite all the challenges, the foundation has a lot to be thankful for, including a highly supportive community, most recently including PetSmart Charities. “There’s a new off-site adoption center, scheduled to open December 1 in conjunction with PetSmart Charities,” Bischel says. “PetSmart paid for the space, cleaning supplies, and food. We are supplying the staff and animals.”
On-site, Bischel stresses that drop-in volunteers are welcome. “Most people who work here aren’t here for the paycheck,” Baldridge says. Volunteers’ duties range from socializing the animals, photographing them for the website, and assisting behaviorists and veterinarians, to fostering kittens and puppies. In 2011 alone, this added up to a savings of $185,833 of overhead costs for the Animal Foundation.
“The most popular volunteer job is socializing dogs and walking them,” Bischel says. “Volunteers arrive early, even before we open. We have a list, and they walk them through the Greenspun Family Dog Adoption Bungalows.” Treats are great, but don’t feed them turkey and trimmings: The dish isn’t on the foundation’s veterinarian-approved diet.
Feeding the Hungry - Gobble Gobble
Give For a lot of Americans, enjoying a home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner just doesn’t sit right unless they’ve helped others do the same. For the past three years, filmmaker Adan Van Dam, Las Vegas organizer of Gobble Gobble Give (GGG), has done just that, after a friend connected him with Barry Walker, the organization’s founder.
GGG was born in LA 14 years ago, when a then-homeless Walker was down on his luck, taking refuge in an abandoned apartment and cooking his meals using a socket that still had electricity. That Thanksgiving he noticed a homeless family was living in the home’s unkempt backyard. “I remember watching them go about their daily routine that day and thinking, Wow, someone worse off than me,” Walker says. He was inspired to make them a Thanksgiving dinner with his life savings—$9.42—and offered up plates (“dinner rolls, canned vegetables, and other buy-oneget- one free items”) to others around town in the same boat. He delivered nine meals that day. Over the next few years, Walker was able to pull himself up: He now owns several successful LA spas, and probably most notable of all, he went from being homeless to being a homeowner. But the spirit of GGG stayed with him and has spread across the country; on every fourth Thursday in November, the organization now feeds and clothes thousands of homeless people in LA, Vegas, New York, Santa Monica, Austin, San Francisco, and Houston. “It was one of those things where there wasn’t much planning,” Van Dam says. “It just happened.”
On Thanksgiving morning in Las Vegas, people come out of the woodwork bearing donations, Van Dam says. Even his mom gets in on the action, cooking dozens of turkeys the night before. An assembly line forms off Fremont Street to box up the warm meals, and then GGG hits the streets. To catch people’s attention, the care packages are driven around in flashy vehicles, like the hot wheels donated by Vegas’s own Danny Koker, of the History Channel’s Counting Cars.
Van Dam estimates that the organization was able to feed more than a thousand people in Las Vegas last year. “People just come and have such good intentions, and it all works out,” he says. “It’s such an awesome experience, the natural high you get—even if just for one day.”
photography by jeff gale