Juanita Leslie cut triangles out of a pumpkin pie and lifted the slices into plastic foam boxes as fast as she could.
The red beanie on her head served as both as a hair net and matching accessory to her sweater, emblazoned with the words “Happy Holidays.” When enough boxes piled up on the long communal table in the Raleigh Rescue Mission basement, Leslie carried them across the room to be bagged and taken to the needy.
“I’m slowing down a little,” said Leslie, 91. “But I’ve gotta keep busy, and I feel like I can give back.”
The Cary woman was one of more than 100 people who got up early on Christmas Eve to help the Raleigh Rescue Mission cook, package and transport more than 760 meals to the elderly, disabled and others in need.
“We’d rather be doing this than shopping,” said volunteer Bill Stokes of Apex.
Robin Sheffield said she didn’t miss the bustle of last-minute shopping. At Triangle Town Center on Friday, “it took me 40 minutes just to drive from the food court to Macy’s,” she said.
Mission leaders started the outreach, known as Gobbles and Go, 13 years ago when they saw an opportunity to serve residents who are unable to get to food on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
It’s especially appreciated on weekends like this one, said Lynn Daniell, the mission’s executive director. Many of the beneficiaries rely on Meals on Wheels, a door-to-door food delivery service that doesn’t operate on weekends.
Mission volunteers pack plastic foam boxes full of ham, turkey, mashed potatoes and other holiday meal staples.
“Usually, it’s so much that a senior citizen can eat it for more than one meal,” Daniell said. The mission’s program has become so popular that it sometimes has more food than it can give away at one time, he said. Volunteers this year donated more than 150 hams, 150 turkeys and 3,000 pounds of food.
“It shows that people care,” said Nanjae Canady, who volunteered Saturday on his 16th birthday.
Gobble and Go volunteers arrive at the mission’s building on Hargett Street near Moore Square in downtown Raleigh at about 8:30 a.m.
Some, like longtime volunteer Phil Cunningham of Clayton, get up as early as 4 a.m. to start preparing food. Cunningham, praised by mission staffers for his service, downplayed his significance in the effort.
“I like to hunt, so I get up early anyway,” he said, standing over a boiling pot of green beans in the mission’s parking lot.
I didn’t realize until I started (volunteering) how much making a meal would mean to someone.
Those who don’t cook can choose to spoon food into boxes, fill the boxes with cranberry sauce and seal them, box pumpkin pie slices, place the boxes into paper bags or deliver the food to customers.
Tyra Keitt, a recent graduate of North Carolina A&T University, placed chucks of ham and turkey into boxes at “the food table.” Keitt started volunteering five years ago after her aunt described how rewarding it is.
“I didn’t realize until I started (volunteering) how much making a meal would mean to someone,” Keitt said.
Hali Coleman, of Raleigh, is Keitt’s aunt. This year, she stayed at the mission to stuff boxes with food. But, in previous years, she’s delivered the food and says many of the recipients just appreciate the company.
“It’s sobering,” Coleman said. “They like to talk because they might not have anyone to spend the holidays with.”