Unseen Angels fly in a feast
Not everyone enjoys the privilege of a traditional Thanksgiving meal: Juicy roasted turkey, soft mashed potatoes, rich gravy, warm bread, buttery corn and tart cranberries, followed by a piece (or several) of sweet pumpkin pie with a dollop of whipped cream.
That describes most of the mouthwatering menu the local force of Unseen Angels plans to prepare in the kitchen of Kilkarney Hills Golf Course, then delivery drivers will take the food from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thanksgiving Day to families, singles, seniors and others who may not have access to a turkey and all the trimmings.
Local volunteer Janet Nielsen-Landgraf confirmed that the program reached its serving capacity and stopped taking meal requests Monday. Four thousand people have signed up or been nominated to receive meals through Unseen Angels.
In 2010, the volunteers served about 142 families in River Falls and a total of 832 people. Each year, its volume has just about tripled.
The non-profit group works a multiple-county regional area that includes Pierce and St. Croix counties, as well as other parts of western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota. Potential donors and volunteers log onto the website -- www.theunseenangels.org -- to "become an angel" or donate; there volunteers can say how and when they can help.
People can also go there next year to nominate or request a meal.
Nielsen-Landgraf says she got to know the Somerset-based founder through work circles and began volunteering for Unseen Angels three years ago.
Around Thanksgiving in 2007, the founder felt badly for a woman who had just put her last $42 toward rent and wouldn't have a holiday feast. Before she knew it, friends heard the story and jumped in to help cook extra food; the year served six needy families that first year.
Nielsen-Landgraf describes the experience of delivering meals as "life changing." She and her husband were touched by one woman who answered the door, told them a bit of her story then cried as she hugged and thanked them. Nielsen- Landgraf says her kids also "got into it" and couldn't wait to go knock or ring the bell at the next door.
The organization has a strong culture of focusing on its mission and serving those in need. The founder prefers complete anonymity for volunteers and voraciously protects the confidentiality of Unseen Angels' guests.
Delivery-driver volunteers for example, work outside their home area as they take two to six meals to people's doors.
Nielsen-Landgraf says only two people in the entire organization see family names and addresses. To everyone else, the guests become an important number, with a corresponding address and scheduled delivery. Meal recipients receive a confirmation post card.
Besides taking web-based nominations and requests, the organization coordinates with entities and agencies that refer needy families to it.
She said food and volunteers shift into high gear the week before the holiday. Food travels from storage to the kitchen, and preparation begins and under a chef's supervision. Nielsen-Landgraf clarified that the preparation happens in a commercially licensed kitchen and says the actual cooking takes about two days.
"Last year we cooked all the food at Junior's," she said, adding that the bar and grill's General Manager Dustin Hanson was a huge help in directing the large-scale production.
Somebody suggested looking at Kilkarney Hills as a possible food-prep site, and a tour of the kitchen made the founder all "misty eyed." It was perfect.
The overall effort comes together through fundraising and donations, individual volunteers, and partnerships with wholesale food outlets. Partners range from major retailers who give turkey and suppliers with the right-sized to-go packaging to volunteer drivers and people who count out dinner rolls.
Nielsen-Landgraf said in some years past, Unseen Angels has received donated instant potatoes, but not in 2011. "This year we will actually be peeling 2,000 pounds of potatoes."
The volunteers come from everywhere -- her church, the Assembly of God; many other churches; civic organizations; families; other volunteer groups; and past guests of Unseen Angels. They come not only to deliver meals on Thanksgiving Day but to help prep and cook the food in the days before.
Feeding the Angels
In a call last week, the founder said, "We are at a 13% increase in food costs from last year."
Nielsen-Landgraf says Unseen Angels holds a fundraiser the first weekend of October that features appetizers, music and live and silent auctions. It didn't do as well this year as in some years past, but that doesn't deter the group.
It realizes that this economy may decrease donations, but it increases need.
Much of the volunteers' effort is spent coordinating with wholesale food distributors, storage vendors and companies with big trucks to transport the food; most partners are within the regional area, and a few are nationwide.
Nielsen-Landgraf tells of one year before the group gained the blessing of donated cold storage, they stuffed a 15-passenger church van full of perishable food.
The Unseen Angels founder says on the website: "The thought of not being able to provide my family a traditional Thanksgiving meal would devastate me. Everyone should have that opportunity."
Learn more about the program or sign up to volunteer at www.theunseenangels.org .