Nine years ago, Jenni Bolton opened an envelope that would change her life forever and Thanksgiving for hundreds of families cross Northwest Indiana. The message in the envelope said, “Feed 500 families, Food and Faith.”
Bolton attended a Youth in Christ convention and was told not to open the envelope she was given unless she was able to take on the task written inside. The envelope sat in her Bible unopened, until one night she was moved to open it. That sparked the beginnings of an annual tradition that would be known as 500 Turkeys, where she and her team of volunteers, church members across Valparaiso, businesses and organizations would come together to package 500 Thanksgiving meals and more to give families in need a hand up for the holidays.
The first year in 2009 Bolton, with the help of a few friends from her church, met her goal of feeding 500 people. However, Bolton felt her work was not done, and the number in the envelope was just the beginning.
“Back then we worked out of a small church. We had a turkey a few fixings and ended up giving each family five dollars to cover any costs they would need. I never imagined 9 years later we would be feeding over 1,500 families. It’s completely God’s hands and feet all over this,” said Bolton.
Continuing her work, 500 Turkeys kicked off their two-day distribution event at Valparaiso Nazarene Church on Saturday morning at 11 a.m., with families lining up as early as 8 a.m. in the church’s lobby. Years later, what started out as giving enough food to feed 500 families has now turned into providing enough food to feed more than 1,500 homes in The Region.
“I hear from families that they wouldn’t have Thanksgiving if not for us,” Bolton said. “We hear lots of stories of illness and loss where they couldn’t come up with the funds to give Thanksgiving to their families. The sadness is immeasurable, there’s a lot of people in the community who are hurting."
The volunteers of 500 Turkeys provide each of the families with a turkey, box of Thanksgiving staples, hygiene products, donated clothing and more during their two days of distribution. The volunteers also offer prayer and a warm meal at the event.
“It’s an incredible thing to witness,” said Genise Shumaker, 500 Turkeys volunteer. “To see these families come in looking so beat up by their circumstances and come out smiling because they are able to give their kids a Thanksgiving dinner and some necessities most take for granted; that’s what makes 500 turkeys so amazing!”
Bolton began the day by addressing the 300 volunteers who gathered in the church, where she told them of her humble beginnings.
“Growing up, we didn’t have much,” Bolton said. “We were always taught to treat people equally no matter what. Today, lets treat them like kings and queens.”
Bolton said this year they have had the most sponsors they’ve ever had, totaling to 20 businesses and organizations who donated funds and resources to aid in 500 Turkey’s mission. Northshore Health Center, Porter Regional Hospital and Accurate Hearing Aid Services had booths set up to give families free screenings and health information.
Cub Scout Pack #920 lent a helping hand with 20 kids, kindergarten to 5th grade, volunteering for the day. Bill Monroe, Cub Scout leader, said the troop looks forward to this every year.
“It’s amazing to see the boys doing good, to know what they’re doing makes a real impact on the community,” Monroe said.
Joel Davis, 500 Turkeys volunteer and member of Crosspoint Christian Church in Valparaiso, has been a part of the event since the first year.
“It’s been amazing to watch so many more people get involved, and so many more people being fed, and not just fed, but now we have so much more to give them,” Davis said.
To learn more about 500 Turkeys, click here!