DRACUT -- Warm hearts overcame polar weather conditions Sunday and Monday, and the death of the Manolis family's patriarch to deliver a record 2,000 Thanksgiving food baskets to the area's needy in the 20th annual "Project Helping Hands" food drive at Dracut House of Pizza.

It wasn't until midday Monday, after Dracut House of Pizza owners Nick and Voula Manolis and sons Tim and Elias had finished overseeing the annual uploading of thousands of Thanksgiving baskets onto a fleet of box trucks, vans and pickups in the restaurant's parking lot, and had thanked the charity's sponsors -- about 300 volunteers, and Dracut police officers who helped make the drive yet a greater success -- that Nick revealed his sad news.

"I lost my dad last night," he said.

Nick's father, Tim Manolis, 92, a colon-cancer survivor, after whom grandson Tim is named, died Sunday night four days after suffering a stroke. Tim Manolis brought his wife and children to the United States from Greece when Nick was a little boy, and "we had nothing," Nick Manolis recalled Monday.

"Never look down on anybody. We came into this country with nothing. I never dreamed that I would have one-tenth of what I have," said Manolis "So -- give back. That's how we taught my kids. That's what it's all about. We get people who used to get baskets from us, who now come here to help. To give back."

"My dad was an elderly man. He'd been sick. Not really sick a lot.


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This time last year he was in Greece, driving around, enjoying himself. He was diagnosed with colon cancer, and he got past that good. But coming out of anesthesia he started getting forgetful. In late May he developed a urinary infection and he'd been in and out of hospital and rehab. Then he suffered a stroke about four days ago."

As Sunday approached, and his father's condition worsened, Nick Manolis left Project Helping Hands' massive Sunday-night-before-Thanksgiving meal-bagging operation in the capable hands of his wife and volunteers, and was at his father's hospital bedside when he died.

A record 2,000 Thanksgiving turkeys were collected by the annual Manolis Family basket drive at Dracut House of Pizza. Here, volunteers Jim Sullivan of
A record 2,000 Thanksgiving turkeys were collected by the annual Manolis Family basket drive at Dracut House of Pizza. Here, volunteers Jim Sullivan of Westford, and Pierre de Villiers, of Chelmsford, display some of the birds Monday before they are loaded into vans and trucks for delivery. SUN photos / David H. Brow

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our MyCapture site.

"I made all the (funeral) arrangements and then came here to the project," said Nick Manolis. "I said to myself, you've got a commitment and you'll deal with the (grieving process) tomorrow."

Some well-meaning Manolis Family Foundation board members told Nick Manolis he need not concern himself about overseeing the Thanksgiving basket operation in the hours immediately following his father's passing.

"My answer was, yeah I do," said Nick Manolis. "It's how my dad would have wanted it."

The funeral for Tim Manolis will be held Saturday at St. George Antiochian Church, 44 Bowers St. in Lowell.

Manolis then reverted from discussing his personal grief to marveling at Project Helping Hands' having completed two full decades of success, made possible by the drive's sponsors and growing army of dedicated of volunteers.

Nick Manolis, left, coordinates pick-ups Monday. His father died Sunday.Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our MyCapture site.
Nick Manolis, left, coordinates pick-ups Monday. His father died Sunday.

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our MyCapture site.

"These people helping us, they're unbelievable," Manolis said. "And the Dracut police sending us the two officers. It is amazing it's all happened over the years. It was nothing in the beginning. In the first year, we helped what, 30 families? I had to teach my kids back then. Now they're the ones driving the trucks, and taking over."

In total, about 300 volunteers gathered Sunday evening and Monday morning inside and outside the Dracut House of Pizza in a 14-degree wind chill to put together 2,000 food baskets in each "eco-friendly, reusable" blue canvas bag, filled with potatoes, carrots, squash, canned goods, stuffing, bread and desserts, to go with a frozen turkey and four 1-liter bottles of Coca-Cola products.

Dracut Police Officer Jon Gosselin helps load up the PrideStar bus with food, as Sean Daly with PrideStar, lends a hand at right. At rear left is new
Dracut Police Officer Jon Gosselin helps load up the PrideStar bus with food, as Sean Daly with PrideStar, lends a hand at right. At rear left is new Dracut Officer Mohamadou Jaiteh, who also assisted.

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our MyCapture site.

Among the volunteers were Dracut Police Officers Jon Gosselin and Mohamadou "Mo" Jaiteh. Gosselin, who worked at Dracut House of Pizza for many years as a youth, said he specially requested that Jaiteh join him in volunteering for Monday's truck-loading effort as a valuable lesson in appreciating their own good fortune to work as police officers.

"This is great thing for Dracut and the community," said Gosselin. "This is where we both grew up, and this is important. When you do an event like this you realize how fortunate you are, and how good it feels to give back."

The food baskets, valued at $50 each, are delivered to less fortunate families and individuals in the Merrimack Valley, including nursing homes, women's shelters and the Dracut Food Pantry, and were paid for through individual Dracut House of Pizza customer donations and generous donations from local businesses, led by Project Helping Hands' lead sponsor, Align Credit Union.

The volunteer crew that formed human chains to help load trucks with hundreds of turkey dinners for several hours in frigid weather on Monday included at least 20 employees of Align Credit Union, including company president and CEO, Ken Del Rossi, who had a special bearhug for Nick Manolis.

"Our 20 people who are here beg to come and be part of helping out on this, and we're privileged to be part of it," Del Rossi said. "What a noble thing to do every year at this time. It's fabulous. And they have done this for years without any fanfare. My hat is off to the Manolis family."

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