Dinner for 4,000 May Be Back On 

Four hundred turkeys don't come cheap. Neither does the Greater Richmond Convention Center, where volunteers plan to stage a community Thanksgiving feast even if expenses crushed the annual event last fall.

Vicki Neilson and her nonprofit group, The Giving Heart, hope to resurrect the tradition of providing a free meal and entertainment to all who come by bringing in a new batch of recruits to rustle food, labor and money.

"We're not too proud to beg, but we have a hard time asking," Neilson says, laughing. She's assembled a team, a wish list, a budget and a four-page timeline to get plates and chairs filled, 900 people at a time, on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23.

"We're hoping we can find people to donate food and get the word out that this is happening," Neilson says. "We need help with food preparation, and hope chefs, churches and corporate kitchens that are used to power cooking can get involved."

Her group will produce some 4,000 meals to be served by volunteers managed by team captains in a four-hour affair with music and entertainment.

The biggest expenses, if all the food is donated, will be for the convention center ($3,900 for a one-day rental, tables and security) and Aramark, the city's food service provider, which charges $2,700-plus for on-site staffing. (Aramark's offer to provide coffee for $35 a gallon was declined, Neilson says.) Volunteers will prepare food elsewhere and handle serving and clean-up.

Fees and food costs tapped out fund-raisers for Family of Friends, the previous volunteer effort begun by chef Jimmy Sneed and a phalanx of civic-minded restaurateurs in 1999, but Neilson is counting on an untapped donor base to pitch in now.

"This is one of the few holidays where people can give without getting caught up in religion or politics," Neilson says, "and we can use the event as a resource to help people on an ongoing basis, to provide information so they'll know who to call if they need help."

People who are elderly, homeless, students away from home, immigrants and others looking for fellowship are encouraged to attend. "We have a no-empty-chair policy," Neilson says. The organization can be reached at 749-4726, or at www.thegivingheart.org. S

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