From 0 to 1 : The story of Operation Turkey
Three Dog Night’s song claims “one is the loneliest number.” They are wrong. Great things can be attributed to someone starting at zero and making it to one. It is not lonely and is surrounded by those who made it. It’s reached by a 100% growth spurt from zero. We all start at zero for everything that has ever happened in our life.
Why am I writing this?
This story is intended to provide you with information and the inspiration that led me to create a national movement. I didn’t use a well-crafted recipe for the phenomenon that became Operation Turkey. It was merely me moving the dial from zero to one.
Hillary Clinton was famous for saying that it takes a village to raise a child. I would add that one meal, given at the right time, in an altruistic manner, and to the right person, was able to feed hundreds of thousands of people for many years to come. It took one meal to feed a country.
In the late 1990’s the Red Cross received hundreds of millions of dollars in disaster relief donations earmarked to aid those suffering from recent natural disasters. The organization had a good rapport with closet philanthropists and the do-gooders alike.
The Red Cross was the go-to organization if you wanted to help the nation in a crisis. The United States population would donate hundreds of millions of dollars to the Red Cross each year to make things right. Everyone chipped in and felt good about doing so.
I happily carved out a portion of my income each year and blindly sent it in without a thought of exactly where the money was going. We all simply figured it was getting to the most vulnerable members of our nation.
They started out right
The Red Cross started out in 1881 with an original charter to help military personnel injured at war. It later grew to include helping victims of natural disasters such as fires, floods, earthquakes and hurricanes. The organization was doling out upwards of two hundred million dollars each year to victims in the mid-nineties under the tutelage of Elizabeth Dole.
The late nineties saw a large scandal with the Red Cross. The nation heard for the first time that the organization’s executives were taking home hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in salaries. This may seem normal for a Fortune 500 executive, but it didn’t pass the “sniff test” for a non-profit dedicated to helping others.
The southern tip of Florida was hit by hurricane Georges in 1998, creating a $5.9B streak of destruction along the eastern United States. Donations earmarked for victims of hurricane Georges poured into the Red Cross and filled their coffers.
A significant portion of the funds did not make it to the intended recipients. Instead, the Red Cross placed the money into its general fund and used it for other things, some of which were the aforementioned salaries.
Donors sat with their heads in their hands after hearing about the deception and lack of accountability at one of our nation’s most philanthropic ventures. I too felt duped into giving my hard-earned money. Let’s face it. We all felt like suckers. Many would never again send money to our once-beloved Red Cross.
This was the catalyst that moved me from zero to one.
Out of the mire emerges a plan
After hearing the news about their deceit, I put aside my feelings of sadness and took control of my philanthropic destiny. An idea percolated in my head for a while and what emerged was the phoenix from the ashes of the Red Cross’ public relations nightmare.
The concept was based on the desire to never let anyone affiliated with an organization feel duped. Donors shouldn’t feel short-changed on their donations as they weren’t intended to pay someone’s mortgage.
My goal was to create a grassroots program engaging people’s hearts rather than their wallets. It would rely as much on a willingness to help in-person as it would on a donation. And we would have room for all volunteers — never turning one away. To maintain the sanctity of the transaction we would have zero paid employees.
Paid employees seemed like one of the biggest problem with non-profits. My feeling was those on top appear to overvalue their contribution and in turn take home more money that could help those in need.
I vowed there would never be a single person financially compensated for volunteering and that started at the top with me. It would be an organization for good and those that contributed had to believe that their efforts went to the greater good. In return we would simply offer them good karma.
After searching online I was unable to locate an organization with such a cleanly and clearly-defined approach. That told me this was the way forward.
Getting past zero
An idea came to mind in early 2000 that I could help feed and clothe the homeless during Austin’s colder months. Each year Austin would have lovely warm weather until just before December. Thanksgiving always starts the colder weather driving Austin’s downtown homeless population from panhandling at night to disappearing into the shadows to locate a warm place to sleep.
It struck me that my conceptual organization needed to resonate with everyone in the nation if it were to take off. That task sounds a bit ominous and it was, especially for a twenty-seven year old with more energy than experience in running a non-profit. We couldn’t have political or religious affiliations as we would immediately disenfranchise a large percentage of our potential volunteers. We had to be secular.
Thanksgiving was the perfect solution to this conundrum. People didn’t need to be a citizen or have any political or religious affiliation to celebrate Thanksgiving. It was the perfect vehicle to drive home the message of helping during the colder time of year. I was running one company while working at another so I didn’t have time to accommodate anything more than a once-a-year program. Thanksgiving was selected and my plan came together nicely.
My plan was simple. I would start out by handing out one Thanksgiving meal to a homeless person to see how it would work in the real world. This would provide me with the statistical, emotional, and other data points I needed to craft the entire process. It simply needed to be started with one meal.
The first year was quite unscripted. There was no book telling me how to do something like this. Nobody I knew had done anything of the sort and so I used the trial-by-fire learning technique. I just went and did it.
That first meal
My friend and coworker Walker Mellema invited me to Thanksgiving dinner at his mom Connie’s house in Buda, Texas. I explained my interest in starting the program and Connie became so excited that when I asked her to help me pack up a dinner, she started using one of her nice ceramic plates. We quickly switched to using a paper plate because I knew that she would never see it again.
The meal was professionally packed with plastic wrap holding it together tightly. A plastic fork and knife with a paper towel wrapped around them held together by a piece of tape sat on top of the plate. Connie was the quintessential Texas mother. She never wanted anyone to go hungry and made certain that there was enough food for whomever ate the meal to feel very satisfied. It had all of the Thanksgiving fixin’s that made for a memorable meal. It was the basic design from which all future meals would be delivered.
I hadn’t quite yet moved the program from zero to one yet. It still needed to be delivered for the yet-to-be-named program to officially launch. That night would forever change my life.
I drove to downtown Austin after we finished dinner. The night was very chilly and started to get dark as I made my way into the hustle and bustle of downtown. There was no shortage of homeless people that evening.
Many patrons sat in the warmth of bars on Austin’s infamous 6th Street. It was the last bastion of intoxication for many an emotionally wiped person after dealing with their family. The homeless lined 6th Street because the patrons would make for easy panhandling. A second benefit is that bars pumped heat out of their doors each time someone entered or left, so it served as a way to take the bite out of the cold night.
I had been driving for blocks searching for the perfect person. The cold weather made it easy to see who was homeless and who had a place to sleep. My mind raced with thoughts about the person accepting it, not accepting it, eating it, not eating it, being thankful, being upset. A man on the left looked ok and not struggling. Wait. There is a man on the right and he might be the one. What about the three guys on the left? It was very hard to decide since I only had one meal and wanted it to count as much as it could.
As I traveled west on 6th Street from the main highway that bisects Austin I came upon Buffalo Billiards — your typical college pool hall with arcade games, pool tables and of course many drunk patrons from which the homeless could extract a sympathetic buck. Sitting outside was a very thin man bundled in torn clothing draped in a thin blanket, and sitting in a wheelchair. He was disheveled and sat in a slumped position as if the last few bits of energy had left him long before. He didn’t look at me when I walked up. In fact he never looked at me. He looked through me.
Now was my chance. I had tried out different questions in the car to make sure that I came off neither offensive nor accusatory. The words I selected have been the exact same words uttered hundreds of thousands of times over the years.
Have you had a chance to eat yet?
There was no answer from the man. His dark eyes stared through me as I stood there holding the plate. I was so vulnerable waiting to know the fate of my question.
“No he hasn’t” said the man next to him.
I hadn’t noticed the other man as I was fixated on addressing the man in the wheelchair. This other man was sitting right next to him.
“If you leave it I will feed it to him” he said.
Words couldn’t form after I heard his response. I was shocked to see that the homeless man in the wheelchair was being taken care of by another homeless man. This other man was his caretaker and his comrade in the battle for their very survival. I handed the caretaker the meal and walked slowly back to my car.
I did it
I quietly told myself those three little words as I got into my car. I handed out the meal and he took it! The urge to look back was too much for me and I peeked just for a moment to see that his caretaker was indeed feeding the man in the wheelchair. He was feeding him the meal that we so carefully assembled at Connie’s house less than an hour before that fateful moment.
Tears of joy, sadness, and hope
Never before had I been touched like I was that evening with those two unnamed men. I had never felt such a rush of emotion come over me. I slowly walked back to my car, sat in the driver’s seat, put my head down into the steering wheel, and cried.
The tears welled up in me as I tried bravely to hold them off. Even writing these few sentences takes me back to that moment and I can feel the emotional rush that encircled me that evening. I have related the story countless times. Each time is filled with tears. Some make it to my cheeks and others just fill my eyes and then subside as I try to calm myself down.
The tears that evening were special. I had been an entrepreneur for many years, having had my fair share of success. Our company became publicly-traded when I was just twenty five years old and I never cried about it.
It was a success, albeit feeling like a small success when compared with others I had experienced. Why was this one so compelling that I was crying?
The reason that resonated with me was simple. I made a difference in someone else’s life. Success in my life was marginalized because it was always for me. This was something different. It was for a complete stranger who needed help and doing so felt so good.
I took on the challenge of feeding the homeless and it eventually became my opus. Those feelings delivered with that first meal continued with me the following year.
Setting up the Organization
The organization didn’t have a name that first year. There was no sense in naming something that may not be there the next year. During year two we still didn’t have a name. It wasn’t until just before the third year that I decided that it should be named. A name is an important asset to any organization, especially one that would create a movement.
Names rushed through my head. This was 2003. eBay and Amazon were the new names at the time and they required a consumer to learn what they did rather than know in their name. I didn’t like the thought of spending money educating people about our name. It sounded too expensive.
The name should be something tying its main purpose to something that was easy for people to say. Thanksgiving is all about turkey so the name had to have turkey in it. It needed a second word to augment turkey.
I was in logistics at the time, so I always like the words operation and operations. Putting them together as Turkey Operations sounded too cute and may not fit the organization’s purpose. Flipping the words around resonated with me. In early November of 2003 the organization found its name.
Operation Turkey was born.
We were an organization, not a non-profit
During the first few years we were not a non-profit. We were not a for-profit either. We were an organization that didn’t exist except that we had been making a difference for over two years.
My fear was in growing the organization too fast. I decided to design the program to scale in a linear manner. The second year I handed out two meals to double my efforts. Then four, eight, sixteen, and so on.
By year 5 I was cooking multiple turkeys and five friends came over to help me set up a small assembly line. We put the word out that we needed more room. I am not sure how I was introduced to Leibel Harelik and his wonderful wife, but thankfully we were put together. Leibel had been a professional chef and had connections within the Austin food community.
Leibel was at the Empty Bowl Project with David Ansel, owner of the Soup Peddler in South Austin and one of the sweetest men I have ever met. David’s company was headquartered on South First Street and had a small kitchen and plenty of room in the parking lot.
It was only a few days before Thanksgiving and David and his team worked quickly to make room for us. They opened their doors to us the day before Thanksgiving so we could start cooking turkeys. The Soup Peddler staff had left us some extra soup to feed the volunteers, knowing that all of the turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie went to those that needed it most.
After a day of cooking and packing and delivering we sat back and marveled with what happened. We did it. We fed hundreds of people. We had about 30 volunteers still cleaning up when we turned empty cardboard boxes upside down on the asphalt parking lot and served the volunteers warm mushroom soup.
It was the best Thanksgiving meal I have ever had.
It connected us with those we helped. They had no dinner table, no fine china, and no comfortable seats on which to sit. They ate their meals in parks, on highway curbs, at street corners, and even on asphalt with a cardboard box as their table.
We looked around at each other. This was inspiring as much as it was humbling. These simple means by which we were eating connected us as volunteers. We would always have that moment in time where we were a family, separated by tire marks and oil stains. Something had to be said.
I sat up with a new-found strength in my back. making sure everyone could see me before I began my short monologue. It went something like:
As we sit here enjoying this meal I am feeling very emotional. This is how the people we are helping are eating their meals. We helped them turn an obvious bad situation into a happy Thanksgiving meal if only for a brief few moments. Let us never forget this time and this place. We do this because it is the right thing to do.
With those few words we all teared up. Many of the volunteers came over to hug and thank me. It changed them. It changed all of us. One of my favorite photos from that day includes one of Austin’s most notable characters, a man named Leslie Cochran. Leslie was known as Austin’s most famous homeless cross-dresser with big boobs, and wore thongs under woman’s clothes while walking Austin’s infamous 6th Street in high heeled shoes.
I met Leslie back in 1997 a year after we both got here. We shared a few beers at Lucy’s Retired Surfer’s bar. The only words I have to describe Leslie are he is truly a character. When he heard what we were doing with Operation Turkey, he came by to show his support, and pick up a meal for himself. He sat on one knee while Leibel Harelik sat on the other and standing behind us is the entire Operation Turkey volunteer staff.
A couple years later we had scaled from that first meal to thousands each year. In Austin there were over 2,500 volunteers coming out on Thanksgiving morning to help cook, package and deliver over 6,000 meals. We took over the downtown area and every person needing the help was given a wonderful, warm Thanksgiving meal.
Handing off the reigns
The most important thing is to know when to bring in fresh blood into the executive leadership. It was around year 7 that I started looking for my replacement. I found mine in one Brian Tolbert. A good friend of mine.
The plan was for me to spend ten years at the helm before handing it off to the next leader. That person would run it for ten years and hand it off to the next, and so on. Nobody would be at the top for more than ten years.
Brian shadowed me on year 9, then I shadowed him on year 10, and then on year 11 he took over. My role was changed to fundraising and getting the word out.
This past year was our 16th year. We celebrated it by handing out 30,000 meals. At Thanksgiving this year we will hand out 40,000 meals. We are now in over 10 cities spread across 5 different states. That little organization that started with one meal on the fateful night in 2000 is doing great.
The best gift I could ever give the organization was to replace myself to the point where I could step out and have it continue to operate, grow, and thrive.
I did it and that makes me proud.
Now I still run the Operation Turkey location in downtown Austin at PF Chang’s on San Jacinto. You can hear me every Thanksgiving losing my voice as I cheer on the 1,500 to 2,000 volunteers at that location.
My hope is to take my family to another city and volunteer at an Operation Turkey as a regular volunteer in the coming years. I look forward to getting in line with the other volunteers without mentioning a thing about who I am.
Thanks for reading.
Operation Turkey pictures throughout the years
Here are some pictures you might like from over the years. They are in no particular order. Just as I found them when looking through them.
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And of course please consider following me on Twitter at @richardbagdonas and volunteering at Operation Turkey.