This is the third installment of our “Helping Hands” series for this week where we give thanks to those extraordinary Latinos whose mission is to help others.
On Tuesday morning, at midnight, people in Orlando started lining up in the dark.
There had been lines on Monday morning in Tampa and Sunday morning in Fort Myers too. And all of those people were waiting for free turkeys to feed their families this Thanksgiving.
For four years, Lou Pendás’ law firm has given away free turkeys to needy Central Florida families. The annual giveaway began as a simple act of kindness in 2009, when a client admitted he didn’t have enough money to buy a Thanksgiving meal for his family. Pendás purchased one for him and the episode sparked an idea.
“I started to think of how many more people there are like him. So I decided to give away 1,000 turkeys to 1,000 needy families that year,” says Pendás. His law firm’s Orlando office got the birds and transportation and even called a local food bank to set up donations in case all the turkeys didn’t go. He admits, “I wasn’t sure there would be enough people to show up.”
All 1,000 turkeys were picked up that day and Pendás had to turn away hundreds more who needed a turkey for their family.
Since then, the annual turkey giveaway goes to three cities — each home to a Pendás law office — for three days. This year, they gave away 1,000 turkeys in Fort Myers, 1,000 turkeys in Tampa and 1,500 more in Orlando. Pendás estimates that over the last four years they’ve given turkeys to more than 20,000 families in need.
People don’t have to provide proof of hardship or sign-up. They just have to show-up. This has some critics wondering whether the people in line are needy or just looking for free stuff. Pendás says that, “if you’re waiting in line for five or six hours for a turkey, you really need it.” He adds that if you’ve waited for six hours, you’ve earned it.
“The line in Orlando today was three, four, maybe five blocks. About a half-mile long. And we had to turn away hundreds and hundreds of people,” says Pendás who immigrated to the U.S. with his parents from Cuba at age five. He grew up in Orlando and sees the turkey giveaway as a chance to help others in their time of need.
“When my family came to this country [from Cuba] without a dime, they worked very hard. Key people helped me in my life at crucial times. And if not for their help, I may have ended up in a completely different place in life,” says Pendás who says his life is the true “American dream” and that he is “blessed beyond my wildest dreams.”
Every year, Pendás brings his sons — 10 and 12 years-old– to help give away the turkeys. He hopes his sons, “see we have been blessed and see that others are struggling. We need to give back.” His sons have become enthusiastic participants and were bagging and handing out turkeys for hours on Tuesday, even outpacing their father.
The entire turkey giveaway process takes six months to prepare. The Pendás law firm has a committee that hires police, coordinates transportation for the birds, buys the turkeys and puts together a plan for organizing the long lines.
Each year, the line starts a little earlier and more people are turned away. This has inspired Pendás to look beyond Fort Meyers, Tampa and Orlando. “I want to go state-wide,” says Pendás. “I have the facilities and the capabilities.”
While expanding the number of cities for the turkey giveaway will surely provide more families with Thanksgiving dinner’s staple, Pendás hopes the people he helps will also pay it forward.
“I hope that by giving a turkey kids will not only have a Thanksgiving, but strive to become something more and live the American dream like I did,” he says. “Maybe one of them will. You never know.”