By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV
“Giving Back Day” began nine years ago with a simple idea that has blossomed beyond the wildest dreams of organizers Kellen Leef and Mike Sheridan.
“My parents were going to be alone one year for Thanksgiving,” Kellen remembers. “It made me think about all the people who don’t have family. All the commercials show families together at the holiday, but not everyone has that.”
She and Mike were operating a restaurant, When Pigs Fly BBQ, at the time. “That first year, we had it there,” said Mike. “We just cooked turkeys and opened the doors to everyone.”
A number of folks came, including a young man who simply wanted to buy a Thanksgiving meal. They explained to him that the meal was free, their gift to the community. He left, went to the ATM, and returned with a donation to expand their efforts on a larger scale. And ever since, they’ve been feeding the community for Thanksgiving…at no charge.
“This isn’t just about feeding people,” added Mike. “It’s about a holiday experience.”
“The people we’re trying to reach first are the ones who don’t have family,” Kellen said. “In that process, if we can also reach the people who don’t have the means or know how to make a Thanksgiving dinner, then that’s a bonus.”
‘We don’t cut any corners’
Now in year nine, Kellen and Mike have seen their simple concept blossom into a huge event. Last year, 125 volunteers helped them serve nearly 600 meals. They cooked almost 50 turkeys in shifts over two days leading up to Thanksgiving. But they want folks to know that even though the event grows every year, they don’t forget their roots.
“We don’t cut any corners,” Mike said of the meal. They use real cream, real butter, and make every single thing from scratch.
“We make the food just as if we were making it for our home Thanksgiving dinner,” Kellen continued. “Our community is our family.”
Each table is prepared with a cloth, and guests are served by volunteer waiters and waitresses, who are instructed to make them all feel at home.
An army of volunteers
“There’s no way Kellen and I could do this on our own,” Mike adds. “Even if we could magically hire enough people to pull it off, it wouldn’t be the same.” He says the volunteers do it out of the goodness of their hearts, and it shows.
It takes an army, and the have one. On Wednesday, a group of volunteers comes in to peel more than 200 pounds of potatoes, among other jobs.
“Blue Moon Bagels makes 600 rolls, Swift Level Farms and their customers donate dozens of pies, the Talbott family buys all the turkeys,” explains Kellen. “This is a huge community effort. Cathey Sawyer and Cindy Rowlands coordinate all the volunteers. We couldn’t do it without everyone’s support.”
Those wishing to volunteer should contact Cathey Sawyer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or if you’d like to make a contribution, please call Kellen at 304-249-8124.
Any funds that are leftover after paying for food costs are donated directly to Penny Pitch to assist local families in need.
Everything you need to know for the 2023 event
If you’re planning to attend this year, there are a few things you should know.
The meal is from 12-4pm (or until food runs out.) While dine-in is preferred, carryout meals are available. When you arrive, you will be directed to the dine-in or carryout area depending on your plans.
This year, they are moving the meal to the Cecil Underwood Building, a larger space on the grounds of the State Fair of West Virginia. This means the traffic flow and parking has also changed. Enter through the gate on the northbound side of Route 219, and follow the signs to the parking area. Please stay within the designated traffic lanes so was not to disturb the “Christmas at the Fair” light show, which will be setting up all over the Fairgrounds.
Kellen and Mike are happy to provide meals for organizations or entities in larger quantities, but they do ask for advance notice of those orders rather than showing up the day of the event and asking for 20 meals, for example.
Watch the “When Pigs Fly” Facebook page this week for details on how and when to place advance orders.
Another new element this year is the Greenbrier County Schools Art Show. “We always keep the meal a Thanksgiving meal; we don’t want it to turn into a circus,” says Kellen. “This year we do have a new art show from local students. The kid’s art helps mirror a home experience on the holiday.”
More than a meal
“It’s interesting to me that this works,” Mike reflects with a smile. “Nobody gets paid for it. Nobody gets anything out of it except the experience.”
And the experience is what he and Kellen value above all else.
“You just don’t know who you’re going to reach,” Kellen adds. “I’ve been able to put people in touch with a pastor or a social worker in past year. People don’t always come just for the dinner.”
“It’s something we hope goes on for a long time,” Mike says. “It’s become part of the community.”