On Saturday, November 19, at 8 a.m., 13 high school students and five adults met in the parking lot of Piccolo's Restaurant on Kinnelon Road. As a truck loaded with over 1,200 frozen turkeys arrived, they piled into cars and caravanned to Father English Center in Paterson to unload the first 500 turkeys.
Seven hours later, they had delivered seven tons—14,000 pounds—of turkey; enough to feed everyone in Yankee Stadium.
The students are volunteers for Turkeys 4U, a nonprofit organization celebrating its tenth year. It was the brainchild of Blake Wheale, a Kinnelon High School freshman back in 2001 who wanted to raise money to help provide turkeys for the poor on Thanksgiving.
Through attorneys Debra and Larry Casha, Kinnelon residents with a law practice in Montville, Wheale's idea got support through Montville UNICO, an organization with a foundation that helps pay for program expenses. The members of UNICO shop for trimmings, prepare food baskets, and deliver them to families in need through local schools, nurses and churches. The Cashas, who are members of Montville UNICO, have become annual advisors and liaisons for Turkeys 4U.
What makes this program unique is that students run it themselves while adults take a back seat.
"The students are in charge of their own organization," said Larry Casha. "They raise money, deliver food, sign the invoices and have corporate meetings. They learn succession planning through mentoring so when they leave, the people coming in behind are experienced."
Debra Casha said the students start planning their fundraising activities in July.
"We start meeting in July and August. We have four or five meetings. Each of the kids comes up with their own list of people and sends out their own letters. We collect lists when seniors graduate and divide names up among new kids so the list grows.
She said kids speak at churches and collect donations, and put shaker cans out.
Casha said when checks arrive, the students hand them in to Montville UNICO. They are encoded on a matrix, and sent to the foundation, who sends out the IRS letter and deposits the checks. The turkeys are purchased through Menella's Poultry, which includes the trucking. 100 percent goes toward feeding the needy. Any money left over is used to handle emergency requests throughout the year.
Casha said that delivering the turkeys is the fun part. On Saturday, their second stop was Pine Brook Fire House to unload 76 turkeys, with 15 going to the Kinnelon Health Department. The next stop was Market Street Mission for 326 turkeys, and the last 326 were delivered to the Interfaith Food Pantry in Morris Plains.
Casha said that donations were still coming in this year. She said the students raise on average $15,000-$20,000 a year. The number of students has grown over the years, and different high schools have participated. Casha they would like to see more high schools get involved.
To learn more about UNICO, visit their website: http://www.montvilleunico.org.