DRACUT — “I can’t believe this,” Nick Manolis sighed.
Through the window behind his head overlooking the Dracut House of Pizza’s parking lot, close to 100 people buzzed around in the cold Monday morning rain, ponchos draped over their heads. They formed lines to pass dozens of frozen turkeys, bags of vegetables and bottles of soda with a mechanical efficiency, filling vans, trucks and ambulances with food to be donated.
Twenty-five years ago, Manolis and his family, who own the restaurant, passed out 30 turkeys to those in need. After immigrating from Greece as a child, Manolis wanted to thank the community that had welcomed him in.
Now, a quarter-century later, their official 501(c)(3) foundation is marking the occasion by donating Thanksgiving meals to 2,500 families.
“When you have, you have to give back,” Manolis said. “If everybody does just a little, you can accomplish a lot.”
His use of “everybody” is, in many ways, fitting. The donation drive mobilizes hundreds of people across the region, starting months ahead of time with planning and logistics and peaking the week of Thanksgiving with the bustling scene outside his restaurant.
More than 300 people volunteered their time Sunday, Manolis said. They helped divide up the various types of food — whole frozen turkeys, canned cranberry sauce and gravy, fresh potatoes and carrots — into bagged portions ready to be distributed to families. All of the food was purchased by the Manolis Family Foundation with money it raised, save for the bottles of soda, which were donated by Coca-Cola.
Close to 100 people returned Monday to load those packages into vehicles headed to veterans affairs hospitals, senior centers and charities. Many of the volunteers are regulars, but Manolis said he does not advertise. Newcomers arrive every year based on word of mouth or, once work begins in the parking lot, curiosity. One man, carrying a single cardboard box with a turkey and several canned goods inside, wandered around the scene Monday, asking where he could drop off new donations.
Many things have changed in the years since the Manolis family first began their efforts. Most obviously, the number of meals multiplied by a factor of more than 80, but the logistics are different now, too. Early on, family and friends would make every delivery themselves, often directly to the homes of families in need. But as the scale increased, that became less feasible.
Today, deliveries are made to several community locations and to various agencies that support families. Partners such as Trinity EMS and Pridestar EMS provide vehicles to help transport the packages to their destinations.
Ed Daly, who was a longtime leader of Pridestar, times his annual trip up from Naples, Florida for the holidays so that he can arrive in time to assist with the Manolis food drive, which in recent years has been dubbed “Project Helping Hands.” This year, he had to change his flight last-minute to ensure his presence Monday.
“It’s just a nice feeling to know you’re doing something for somebody else,” Daly, 84, said. “With all we have, we want to make sure we share it.”
And if the weather was any deterrent Monday, it was not apparent among the crowd, where a forklift whirred and volunteers swiftly loaded boxes onto trucks.
“Twenty-five years, 2,500 turkeys?” said Chris Dick, director of business development and marketing at Trinity EMS, his voice rising as if asking a rhetorical question. “That’s the community coming together.”
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.