North Philly turkey giveaway needed ‘now more than ever’ as pandemic rages on

Philadelphians line up outside Izlas restaurant in Kensington for a free Thanksgiving turkey.

Philadelphians line up outside Izlas restaurant in Kensington for a free Thanksgiving turkey. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Alex Pagan has been out of work since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The home healthcare aid, who suffers from asthma and a lung condition, lost his job after his 84-year-old client of eight years died from COVID-19.

So receiving a free Thanksgiving turkey at Sharing Love Home Care’s annual giveaway event on Sunday meant something to him.

“We’re getting free turkeys because we need them,” Pagan, 31, said. This was his first time picking up a free turkey from the event. “[We’ll] take them home to our parents, you know, make it easier for Thanksgiving.”

Ricardo Santana and Ashley Vargas hold a turkey during a giveaway event in Kensington
Ricardo Santana and Ashley Vargas, founders of Sharing Love Home Care, held their 4th annual turkey giveaway Sunday outside Izlas restaurant in Kensington. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Sharing Love Home Care hosted its 4th annual turkey giveaway at Izlas Latin Cuisine restaurant near Kensington. But because of the pandemic, and COVID-19 cases exploding locally, things looked a bit different this year.

Dozens of people in masks lined up outside to receive frozen turkeys, handed out from a U-Haul van in front of the restaurant. To mitigate the risk of spreading the virus, only three people at a time were allowed inside the restaurant, where volunteers gave out platters of hot arroz con pollo from behind a table while all the windows and doors were kept open.

Company co-owner Ashley Vargas, 26, said Sunday’s giveaway almost didn’t happen.

Wayne Rollins receives a free turkey in Kensington.
Wayne Rollins receives a free turkey in Kensington. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Due to the pandemic, everything is just so limited,” said Vargas. The organizers only confirmed they’d be able to hold the event about a week before the giveaway.

“Usually we start informing people about a month in advance,” Vargas explained, “give them time to prepare so they don’t waste their own funds. “However, this year we had to wait a little longer, just to be sure.”

Vargas was not sure that Walmart, their supplier in previous years, would provide the turkeys again, but Sharing Love was able to secure 200 turkeys last week. That’s 50 fewer than the last year, even though Vargas said their giveaway has become more popular over the years. And with the pandemic’s economic impact on businesses and record job losses, Vargas expected a big turn out.

“Right now more than ever, there’s definitely a need for this and that’s why we were pushing so hard to be able to even have this event today,” Vargas said. “So many people are losing their jobs. They have no employment, they’re trying to live off unemployment if they even qualify for it.”

Christina Mclendon carries a plate of food during a giveaway event
Christina Mclendon is the owner of Izlas restaurant in Kensington. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Wayne Rollerson was out of work for about a month at the start of the pandemic.

Lined up with a group of friends, he said being able to get a free Thanksgiving bird for his family “means a lot.”

“I’m grateful for the fact that someone is even pulling something together like this,” Rollerson, 27, said. ”People that may not be able to afford it around this time of the year. Thanksgiving is every year, but especially during times now with the pandemic and everything.”

Kensington resident Alex Pagan waits in line for a free Thanksgiving turkey for his family.
Kensington resident Alex Pagan waited in line for a free Thanksgiving turkey for his family. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The North Philly native said he’s glad to see a local organization extending a needed helping hand.

“It’s just good for morale,” Rollerson said, “and for people to feel like the community is giving back to them, and that they care.”

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