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Unseen Angels give families reason to be grateful

Tracy Turner, sitting in the dining hall at YMCA Camp St. Croix, takes a call from a needy family requesting a Thanksgiving dinner.

Tracy Turner's plan was modest enough when she started six years ago.

A renter in a duplex owned by Turner and her husband, Darrian, wasn't going to have a traditional meal on Thanksgiving Day. The young woman was pregnant and alone, and it broke Turner's heart that she wouldn't be celebrating the holiday.

Turner, who lives in Somerset, organized a group of friends who cooked Thanksgiving meals with all the fixings for the residents of the Turners' six duplex units. They delivered them anonymously.

That was the start of Unseen Angels, a program that this Thanksgiving Day delivered turkey dinners for more than 8,000 people.

"We saw a need and we filled it. It has just continued and gotten a little bigger every year," Turner said on the day before Thanksgiving.

She was sitting in the dining hall at YMCA Camp St. Croix, with cell phones in each hand, plus another phone and calculator on the table in front of her.

Calls were still coming in for meals to be delivered. Families hear about Unseen Angels through word of mouth, volunteers for the program, schools, nonprofits and churches.

The dinners were cooked and packaged at the Y camp on the south side of Hudson this year. Literally hundreds of volunteers participated in the preparation and delivery.

Turner said several hundred volunteer drivers would arrive at the camp Thanksgiving morning, and take the meals as far away as northern Minnesota.

"The main rush of drivers starts at 9 o'clock," she said, "some going to distant places will come at 7:30."

A number of companies helped out, too. Lakeside Foods in New Richmond donated all the corn. Gregory's Foods from Eagan, Minn., provided the dinner rolls. KapStone Container Corp. delivered 2,500 cardboard boxes with an Unseen Angels logo printed on them.

The boxes were used for storing the prepared dinners inside refrigerator trucks provided by Hammond Cold Storage.

Turner, the manager of a White Bear Lake real estate title company, does grant-writing and fundraising throughout the year to purchase 180 turkeys, 3,000 pounds of potatoes and 1,500 pounds of sweet potatoes, plus around 1,000 pumpkin pies, Cool Whip, stuffing and corn bread.

"I'm a connector, so I think it's just part of my path," said Turner. "Obviously, this is just meant to be in my life, and if it wants to grow, we're going to grow with it. We're going to make it happen."

Unseen Angels is different from some programs in that there are no income guidelines for participation, and meals are delivered as far away as there is a volunteer driver willing to go.

The 38-year-old Turner was planning to call off the program this year after her father, Dell Pankonien of Deer Park, died of pancreatic cancer on May 17.

A conversation with her son Kollen, 13, changed her mind.

"I thought he would be happy, because it is a lot of work, and they (Kollen and her son Alex, 18) are here right along with it, working like crazy," Turner recalled.

But Kollen gave her a disgusted look and reminded her of all the people and children they had fed the year before.

Two days earlier, a woman caller had cried when Turner informed her that she really would be getting a turkey dinner for her family of six. The woman told Turner she had been trying to decide whether to cook a Thanksgiving dinner or pay her electric bill.

"Your kids are thinking there's a Thanksgiving meal and you can't pull it off. It would crush me," Turner said. "I think it's important that we're bringing it right to them. Their babies don't know the difference. Their families are (having) the exact same memory and experience. At the same time, we're taking a little of the pressure off for just one day."

The goal of Unseen Angels is modest, she said. It doesn't make house payments or change a family's world, but it can lighten the load for one day, and let people in need know that someone cares.

She's learned that poverty isn't discriminatory, Turner said.

"Race, creed, demographic - it doesn't matter. Anybody can be in that position at any point in time."

Unseen Angels also provides an avenue for "a lot of good people to do good things" as volunteers, she said.

Turner worked for Roger Bevers at River Valley Abstract & Title in Hudson until Bevers sold the business a few years ago.

Roger, his wife, Patsy, and his brother Keith were among a number of Hudson volunteers who worked many hours preparing this year's meal.

Turner and her friend and helper Beth Mondor of New Richmond stayed in a cabin at Camp St. Croix the week of the dinner preparation. They worked nearly around the clock.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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