LAWRENCE — For most people, Thanksgiving dinner serves as the highlight of the holiday. But there are many people, including residents of the Merrimack Valley, who don’t have the luxury of a big Thanksgiving Day meal.
Fortunately, those Merrimack Valley residents are being given the chance to have such a meal, thanks to a longtime non-profit organization.
The United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley spent Saturday morning handing out 300 bags of groceries to Lawrence families at 50 Island St. About 30 volunteers also handed out aluminum roasting trays for turkeys, as well as Stop and Shop gift cards to purchase turkeys. Families who received bags registered beforehand with Lawrence Community Works.
“This is my fourth year doing this, and I love being here,” said Tom Raich, a community service liaison with United Way in the Merrimack Valley. “This is really special. It’s great.”
The Thanksgiving Project serves as the largest collective initiative in the Greater Boston area. Partnering with Catholic Charities, United Way distributes 5,500 meals in 10 different communities all on one day, with more than 500 volunteers working to organize and pack the food during the week leading up to the event.
As one of the communities chosen by the organization to take part, Lawrence has many families struggling to put food on the table for the holiday, according to Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Joseph Bevilacqua, who was on hand Saturday.
“Every year, unfortunately, the number (of families) is increasing,” said Bevilacqua, who also serves as chairman of the Merrimack Valley United Way Advisory Board. “If it wasn’t for United Way, where would they go? We have a great team of volunteers who are always excited to help.”
Bryce DelGrande, manager of Stewardship and Research for United Way, said the organization works with local groups such as Lawrence Community Works to determine how much food it should allocate, based on the needs of the community. Overall, 150,000 pounds of food is packaged into the grocery bags across the state.
Bevilacqua and his son, Michael, who has been volunteering with United Way since he was a teenager, stressed the importance of the volunteers, many of whom are Merrimack Valley residents themselves looking to lend a hand to a family in need.
“Some people are hesitant at first when they come in, but they see all the smiling faces, and then they become comfortable,” Michael Bevilacqua said. “It’s always great to see how appreciative people are.”
DelGrande, who began working with United Way just several months ago, the feeling he gets from volunteering in places like Lawrence helped push him into working for a non-profit.
“Seeing the direct impact and looking at these people when they receive these items is the most powerful feeling ever,” DelGrande said.