- The Washington Times - Monday, November 21, 2005

Local teenagers and adults yesterday began helping bring Thanksgiving to more than 700 underprivileged families in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

This is the eighth year that volunteers with the Mentor Cares program, an outgrowth of Leadership Cares Foundation, have organized, assembled and packed ingredients for Thanksgiving dinners into cardboard boxes that the families will pick up.

The preparation of the boxes was as part of the foundation’s annual Thanksgiving Cares initiative. Last year, the group assembled about 5,600 meals.

“We’re having a good time,” said Bianca Viza, 20, a Montgomery College sociology student who was one of the many volunteers who helped pack the boxes.

“This really is a labor of love,” said Joanne Johnson, 46, of Alexandria, an employee of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “I want to give something back to the community.”

The collections are being assembled at a distribution center at the DoubleTree Hotel in Rockville. Hotel managers learned of the group’s Thanksgiving initiative and donated the large carpeted meeting center for two days.

The program is developed by the Leadership Cares Foundation, an organization that teaches leadership skills to teenagers and young adults.

In early years of the program, the volunteers delivered the boxes to the families. But tonight, the volunteers will take the boxes to about a dozen Montgomery County schools and Northwestern High School in Prince George’s County, where families will pick up the packages.

Several charities also will deliver packages to some families.

“With over 700 families, it was impossible to go to all the homes,” said Ron Yudd, founder of Leadership Cares who collected Thanksgiving food and delivered it to 16 families in 1997.

Yesterday, the volunteers folded the cardboard boxes and filled each with the typical Thanksgiving fixings — green beans, yams, corn, cranberry sauce, stuffing mix, corn muffin mix, turkey gravy and ginger ale.

This afternoon, the volunteers will put in the frozen turkeys and fresh-baked pumpkin pies before taking the packages to the pickup sites.

“The number of families in need continues to grow in our region and, through this initiative, we are trying to provide a short respite for those that need help all year long,” said Lula J. Davis, executive director of Leadership Cares.

Volunteers also collected toiletries to be included in the packages.

Twins Hannah and Madeline Carretero, both 13 of Rockville, collected toothbrushes, shampoos and soaps, which they put in the boxes yesterday. The girls run a nonprofit called Basic Necessities, which gathers toiletries from area shops to distribute to homeless people.

The girls said they collected about 200,000 items for this year’s distribution.

“It’s unbelievable what they have done,” said Mr. Yudd, 52, referring to the twins.

Much of the money to pay for the annual Thanksgiving initiative comes from an annual summer golf tourney. The drive also urges people to donate $15, enough to provide one box, or basket, of food to a family.

The food is enough to feed a family of six to eight people.

“This is something I really wanted to do,” said Mr. Yudd, of Gaithersburg. “I wanted to do something to teach young people leadership. And guess what? You have to be a leader to do that.”

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