With Thanksgiving just around the corner, New Yorkers are busy perfecting their menus and preparing to do some serious supermarket shopping. But for many in the city, celebrating Thanksgiving is not a given—and this is particularly true for families living in shelters. But that’s where the Dream Big Foundation‘s annual Thanksgiving project, FeedingNYC, steps in.
Since 2001, FeedingNYC has been on a mission to help families in shelters celebrate the holiday by providing them with all of the Thanksgiving essentials. What started out as 75 meals in shelters has turned into 3,000 dinners delivered each year, for a total of 35,000 meals over the program’s 14 years. And to make this happen, it takes a lot of fundraising, numerous partnerships and a wonderful group of volunteers. Pernell Brice, executive director of Dream Big Foundation, is responsible for growing and expanding this important project, and every year he makes sure it goes off without a hitch.
6sqft recently spoke with Pernell to learn more about FeedingNYC and what it takes to get all those meals out to those who need them.
What is the Dream Big Foundation’s mission?
The Dream Big Foundation was founded in 2001. The goal is to support families around Thanksgiving with FeedingNYC, but also to incubate low income entrepreneurs in some of the most challenging areas. We’re piloting an entrepreneurship initiative in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where we are providing equity investment to low income entrepreneurs. The first entrepreneurs that we’re investing in are three sisters who are going to be running the cafe that we’re constructing. In the back of the cafe we’re going to have a working space and an incubator space, which will be our resource center. We believe this is going to be a great way to use impact investment to turn around low income neighborhoods. Hopefully we can replicate this around the city and around the country.
Why did the foundation start FeedingNYC?
Robert LoCascio, who is the founder of the Dream Big Foundation and also LivePerson, was touched after 9/11 with the amount of families that were having difficulty in general, but particularly around huger issues. He and a couple of his colleagues began providing for around 70 families in 2001. After he became more educated about the issue, he became more structured with his approach.
The project is now in its 14th year. How has it evolved and grown?
Today, we deliver to 44 shelters across Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. We only choose shelters that have access to a kitchen or stove in their space because it is so important to these families to be able to cook it themselves. In many cases, the children have never experienced a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal, or really even had a Thanksgiving dinner. It makes them feel like a normal family celebrating the holidays, and often other members of the family are invited to join. Instead of providing the meals soup kitchen-style, this empowers them and makes it a genuine experience.
What is your role in helping this project make a difference each Thanksgiving?
My role is to handle the logistics, the fundraising and the partnerships. My goal is to lower our cost and raise our fundraising capacities so we can feed more families. This year, we have been able to establish a partnership with Fairway who is donating a number of free turkeys to us. ShopRite is offering us discounts. Wegmans has been one of our suppliers and they are also giving us a donation this year as well. This year we actually launched a new video for FeedingNYC with New York City children talking about what they love about Thanksgiving. The video also communicates: “Hey, there’s actually some people who can’t celebrate like you and your family.”
How far in advance does FeedingNYC start preparing?
We’ve been doing it for a while now so it’s a pretty well-oiled machine. Really, we start in the summer just talking about different logistics, partnerships, things we want to do differently. For instance, this year we really wanted to have more children involved at Chelsea Piers for packing, so we said let’s contact a few schools. We have our kickoff luncheon in September where we bring out partners to thank them and start the fundraising season.
When the Thanksgiving boxes are packed at Chelsea Piers, what is the experience like?
The volunteers work from 6:00 a.m.–11:30 a.m. to box everything at Chelsea Piers. We have volunteers from our corporate partners and people who sign up; it’s a very diverse in terms of ethnicity and gender. People just roll their sleeves up and enjoy it. Then the trucks come—one of our donors is FlatRate Moving—and then we have a huge assembly line process where we are handing the boxes from one person to one person and then putting them onto the truck.
How do the families react when they receive their Thanksgiving dinner?
It’s a wide range of emotions. Definitely gratitude and joy, but as you can imagine there are some families that are very emotional. Some people say specifically, “Thank you for not forgetting about us. We go through this day in and day out and sometimes people don’t know what we’re going through. This little act of yours shows us that New Yorkers haven’t forgotten about us.” That really touches us because we’re helping them out one day. But 364 days of the year they still have to battle and endure.
What does helping families in need on Thanksgiving mean to you?
On a personal level, FeedingNYC means a lot. I know that there are a lot of families who are hungry—particularly because of the work that I do with the initiative in Brownsville. I see individuals who are homeless and I can understand what it’s like to feel as if you’re forgotten. So it means a lot to me that I can be part of a foundation and project that can bring some joy to people who just need a little help and a little love.
All images courtesy of the Dream Big Foundation
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