‘This year we need it:’ Heart of Florida United Way gives 1,500 families free Thanksgiving meals

Non-profit donated food as part of 2nd annual Thanksgiving Project

Families receive free meals before the holidays
Families receive free meals before the holidays

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Cars lined up at the Orange County Convention Center Saturday morning as hundreds of families received free Thanksgiving meals.

Heart of Florida United Way gave out free meals to 1,500 pre-selected families in Orange, Osceola, and Seminole Counties.

Michael, who didn’t share his last name, said the holiday looks different for him this year.

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“This year we need it compared to other years,” Michael said.

He said he normally volunteers at Thanksgiving food drives, but this year he’s on the receiving end.

For Patricia, who also didn’t want to share her last name, she said this free meal is a sense of normalcy in an unusual year.

“It means a lot because I’ve been unemployed since March and so my resources are very limited,” Patricia said.

Michael and Patricia received the free meals through the non-profit’s second annual Thanksgiving Project.

Heart of Florida United Way President and CEO Jeff Hayward said they provided families everything they need for the meal.

“The potatoes, the vegetables, the gravy, the cranberry sauce and then they’re getting a gift card to get the protein of their choice,” Hayward said.

Hayward said the need is even greater this year because of COVID-19.

Hayward said during the peak of the pandemic, the organization’s 211 helpline was getting 3,200 calls a day. He said many callers are desperate for help.

“We’ve got people who are calling and saying, ‘I have given to United Way for years, years through payroll deduction and this is the first time that I’ve ever had to ask for help,’” he said.

Hayward said so far the non-profit has helped 7,800 families pay their rental and utility bills.

He adds the meal giveaway is just another way they’re doing their part.

“Even with masks on you can see the joy in their faces, you can see it in their eyes when they’re receiving the meals,” Hayward said. “They’re thankful. Some of these folks may not have had a meal at all.”

Families, like Michael, said despite what 2020 has brought them, there is still plenty to be thankful for.

“We’re very grateful for what we have even if it isn’t as much as we had last year,” Michael said.

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