2011 Holiday Assist Under Way

About this time of year, grocery stores across the country are getting fully stocked with stacks of frozen turkeys, waiting to go home and be the main course for families' Thanksgiving dinners. But even the sight of store freezers full of birds wouldn't prepare you for seeing 400 turkey dinners waiting to go home with Oklahoma families.

Nor would it prepare you to see the line of 400 families stretching out the door, waiting to pick up their holiday meal.

On Saturday, the Thunder continued a Thanksgiving tradition, pairing with Homeland to distribute 400 Thanksgiving dinners through the Urban Mission. This was the kickoff for the Thunder's Holiday Assist, a series of annual community events presented by Cox Communications.

"It's just a great time for our organization to give back to the community," said Head Coach Scott Brooks, who handed out grocery bags full of fixings as families came through the line.

As Brooks shook hands and gave hugs, what stood out to him were "all the smiling faces, all the young kids out there [that] are really thankful that we're giving back and sharing all the goodwill."

Behind the smiles, each family has a story of how they came to a point of needing help from an organization such as the Urban Mission.

"We've seen a dramatic increase in the number of families needing help, and our donations have taken a huge dive – and so this has been especially helpful to the families we've been seeing the past few months," said Peggy Garrett, executive director at the Urban Mission.

She noted that of the 15,000 families served by the Urban Mission, many have been forced to ask for help for the first time this year – including some who are still working, some who recently lost jobs and even some who have previously donated to organizations like the Urban Mission.

Darine Lewis is among those who never expected to be needing a handout. Lewis has worked for 23 years with the OU Medical Center, but when her son passed away a few months ago, she was left to care for her two grandchildren – making it almost impossible to make ends meet on her own.

"This is a big boost to the community," Lewis said. "Everyone is not as fortunate as even my family is, and so I really feel appreciative to even be here."

She added that without assistance such as the dinner she received, "Every day would be a hard day, but especially on holidays."

Instead, Lewis and the other families went home Saturday with a 15-pound turkey, cans of vegetables and cranberry sauce, boxes of potatoes and stuffing, condensed milk, pumpkin filling and a frozen pie. The meal they received would have cost about $40 at their local Homeland – which is far out of reach for the many Oklahoma families battling hunger.

"There's definitely a need, and we're happy to try to help with that," said Christine Berney, the Thunder's director of Community Relations. "I think for a lot of [these families], it means they can actually cook a Thanksgiving meal."

Even though each family came in due to a struggle in their lives, most were nothing but smiles when they entered the building. Thunder staff volunteers embraced the holiday spirit, as well, cheerfully shifting grocery bags to the front of the line and dancing to holiday music when they could grab a break.

"We try to make everything fun, and you can't be in a bad mood when you see these families. It's just heartwarming," added Berney.

Garrett noted that Brooks stood out as one of the most caring and cheerful volunteers.

"I think Coach Brooks has missed his calling," she quipped. "He should come hand turkeys out every day."

Brooks echoed her sentiment (to an extent), noting how much he enjoys days like Saturday.

"We're out in the community because we like to [be] … It's a privilege to be in the position that we're in, coaching the Thunder," he said.

"One of the strong things about our organization is we're strongly committed to our community, and it's a great opportunity for all of us to give back."