Kelsey Gnoinski hunched in a thick winter coat behind Keane Elementary School on Sunday afternoon.
In one hand, she held a cup of steaming hot chocolate. With the other, she waved on a string of cars as half a dozen other bundled volunteers loaded boxes of food into trucks and back seats.
“Everyone deserves a turkey dinner at Thanksgiving,” she said.
Sunday afternoon, the local Concerned for the Hungry group distributed the fixings for Thanksgiving dinner to 2,742 of Schenectady County’s less fortunate families. Each box was stocked with canned goods, dried stuffing and produce, along with a 12-to-15-pound turkey.
Gnoinski handled much of the budgeting and food acquisitions. Her father, Andrew, started with the organization 34 years ago, handing out a few hundred baskets in just the second Thanksgiving dinner effort. Gnoinski, now 27, grew up packing the boxes every year.
“I used to fall asleep in my stroller under one of the food tables,” she said, sipping through billowing cocoa steam.
Few of those early years were as tight as this year, she said. The organization basically spent all of its reserve cash last year. With downstate reeling from Superstorm Sandy, most donations of food and money were shipped out of the area. Last year’s donation shortfall, Gnoinski said, forced the group to raise funds for 2013 from scratch.
“Plus 250 more families signed up this year,” she said. “We had to feed more people with less money.”
Thanks to a half-price deal on more than 35,000 pounds of Wal-Mart turkey and a redoubled fundraising effort, every box was filled.
Sunday, hundreds of cars pulled through the windswept alley behind the school. Smiling, freezing volunteers put boxes of food into the cars.
“I’m pretty sure it’s all about the turkey,” said Teresa Amorosi.
She waited outside the school for a ride from a friend, glancing down at her box of food. She represents one of the 250 extra families in need of some Thanksgiving help. She lost her gas station job months ago, has three children and one more on the way and her food stamps were cut down a bit at the start of this month.
“We never needed this before,” she said, “but we need it now. I always try to have a traditional Thanksgiving.”
The real work comes before distribution day. Volunteers loaded boxes with non-perishables starting Wednesday. On Sunday, a group of junior ROTC students from Schenectady High School loaded butter and frozen turkey into the boxes and carried them out to people’s cars. Amit Singh, 17, worked in military fatigues.
“There are 21 of us today,” he said. “We do some community service almost every weekend, but this is our biggest day.”
Singh doesn’t see the ROTC program as pre-military training. He said it allows his group of friends to prop up a city he sees as failing.
“Two hundred and fifty is a big increase. Things are hard in Schenectady,” he said. “One of the ROTC students saw her mom getting a box.”
Pete Jones, a 34-year Concerned for the Hungry volunteer, said there are two ways to look at the extra long line of needy families.
“More people than ever need help, which means people are still losing their jobs,” he said, “but we’re also helping more people.”