I join the human chain unloading fifteen skids off a twenty six foot long truck. We pass boxes to men, women and children who eagerly wait at assembling tables as the cold Chicago air blows in the garage door at the south end of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC) Physical Education Building. Smiles are in abundance, conversations are lively among those in line, and stations are ready for packaging of the baskets. The volunteers are happy to organize, package and deliver these Thanksgiving food baskets which contain stuffing, potatoes, vegetables, rice water, cakes and a turkey. The beneficiaries of these gifts are families referred to the Basket Brigade from area churches and social workers.
This annual charitable event was started by Shane Staats in his condo in 2009. After attending an Anthony Robbins seminar and hearing Robbins story of his family receiving a basket full of food at Thanksgiving from an anonymous person from the community, Shane was deeply moved by Robbins story and chose to pay it forward. He recruited friends and family to buy the food, package it and deliver the gifts to 23 families in the Chicagoland area.
“I was fascinated at the ripple effect of Tony Robbins story,” Shane said. “He received this package when he was 12 or 13 years old and at 17, Robbins got involved and delivered food baskets to other families in need.”
Shane wanted to increase the number of families that received food baskets over the next couple of years. He and his friends agreed to work towards doubling the number of beneficiaries from previous years and learn from each experience. Throughout this process more and more volunteers showed up through word-of-mouth, allowing Staats and his friends to continue to grow their charitable organization which is now known as The Chicago Thanksgiving Basket Brigade.
“This was my first time doing charity work and I wanted to know what it felt like,” Shane said. “I felt a bit of a glow, I felt light and clean, this one-way giving without expecting or needing anything in return.” Riding this wave of emotion after the first year and achieving the goal of doubling the families in need over the next two years, Staats and his small team were thinking big. With co-founders Rob Chopra and Liliana Salazar Jaramillo willing to expand, Shane reached out to the successful Basket Brigade in Charleston, North Carolina for advice on how to organize a larger operation.
Inspired by the advice from the Charleston Basket Brigade of how to outsource help for managing delivery routes more effectively, Staats and his team were able to tailor that advice to their own needs thus allowing them to focus on providing food for more families. Aggressively using social media sites, setting up volunteer and donation pages and the continued effort of word-of-mouth advertising from its volunteers, the Chicago Basket Brigade went from feeding 111 families in 2011 to feeding 518 in 2012.
The founders went into 2012 with a “think big” mindset. Implementing all their ideas and advice they received, coupled with the experience gained from the past three years allowed them to increase the amount of families they fed by 500 percent while maintaining the integrity of their mission. Witnessing the success of 2012 and being amazed and humbled by all the volunteers that came out in support, the founders again made the choice to increase the volume of families to feed in 2013.
Two days prior to the 2013 Chicago Thanksgiving Basket Brigade, the organization reached their family and fundraising goal of 750 and $22,000 respectively with eighty percent of the funds donated going towards the purchase of food. On the day of the event, with close to 500 volunteers, the committee team of Jason Erkes, Joseph E. Tantilla, Tammy Tantilla, Mina Pauline, and Brian Kelly and sponsorship from local companies such as Rosa’s Premium Horchata, Durable Packaging International, AAA Scrap Iron & Metal and UIC Athletics, the founders were once again amazed and inspired by the turnout of those willing to give back to their community.
“I am very humbled at the understanding of the volunteers and the work that needs to be done inside the guidelines of the Basket Brigade,” Liliana said. “I got involved with this team because I am a cancer survivor and people gave to me when I was sick and I wanted to give back.”
After two and half hours of unloading the truck and assembling the baskets and bags, it was time for delivery. Each driver will take one bag and a basket with food and toys and a turkey to each family. As we were getting ready to load up the vehicles, Rob asked me if I would be willing to take a group photo from the walkway above the gym floor. I walk out of the gym, up the stairwell and exit onto the blue walkway that stretches around the entirety of the gym. It was an awesome site seeing close to 500 volunteers willing to give back to their community on a cold Sunday. After taking several pictures of the group, I make my way downstairs and onto the gym floor. I walk over to one of the aluminum foil baskets wrapped in cellophane that is tied with a gold bow and I lean down to see the attached message that reads:
‘This comes to you from someone who cares about you. All we ask is that you take care of yourself well enough to be able to do this for someone else someday.’
I pack my camera and walk over to assist drivers by carrying baskets and turkey’s to their cars. I feel a deep sense of calm and peace as I look around to see: a young girl wearing dark rimmed glasses help her parents carry food out the door, a young boy donning a Chicago Bears jersey with a turkey in his hands, a man hoisting a cardboard box onto his shoulder that has four frozen turkey’s inside, a woman hustling with excitement counting her gifts making sure she has every last one for her deliveries. I understand the sacrifice each person made to come out and volunteer on this cold Sunday in Chicago. When the opportunity arises to help people less fortunate than you by placing food on their tables, it is not a sacrifice but a desire to connect with your fellow human beings.
The 2013 Chicago Thanksgiving Basket Brigade exceeded their goal and provided food for 780 families totaling 3,120 people.
As I continue to help families load their cars, one thought comes to mind – There is nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer.