Philadelphia police officers often come across families or people on their beats who they wish they could do more to help in a city where one in four people lives below the national poverty line.
Officers around the city got the chance Tuesday to do a little more as they delivered more than 450 Thanksgiving meals to families and seniors. The officers had donated the money themselves -- about $13,000 -- to buy as much food as they could to make the meals.
For 49 years, volunteers in the Philadelphia department have gathered money from officers and civilian employees, asked beat police to keep an eye out for people who might be able to use some holiday help, and assembled the boxes of turkeys and fixings for as many people as their donations can buy.
Officer David Jones, who stood Tuesday with a clipboard in his civilian clothes setting up tables in the chilly predawn, has kept the event running for more than 20 years.
Jones said the amount donated and the number of boxes has varied over the years. In its best year, the officers were able to deliver 600 meals. In the leanest years, when food prices have been high, they delivered about 350 meals.
"We have one family where the parents lost their jobs this year. We have another family where somebody got seriously ill and has been having a hard time," Jones said, stopping to point out to the assembly line of volunteers putting together the meals that a box was hovering on the edge of a table.
"A lot of people only see police coming in for negative reasons, but we're not just arresting people. This helps people see the positive face of what we do," he added.
The volunteers came as early as 5 a.m. to meet the trucks delivering pallets of potatoes, turkeys, stuffing and other fixings. They assembled donated cardboard boxes, and then in a line added the elements to make a Thanksgiving dinner.
Officer Deanna Rowe was volunteering for her twelfth Operation Thanksgiving, adding the cranberry sauce as boxes moved down the line.
"Nobody should go hungry any day," she said. "This is our way of saying thanks for supporting us."
From police headquarters, the boxes were loaded into vans and distributed to the city's more than 20 police precinct houses, where individual officers delivered them to doors.
At a district in west Philadelphia, officers received almost 30 boxes to deliver. But on the table in the precinct house's main room, more than a dozen other boxes of Thanksgiving food, fresh vegetables and eggs had been packed up for delivery.
Officer Vanessa Washington, the district's community relations officer, said those boxes came from church partners and other groups who know the officers deliver food every year to families in need.
Tuesday, even though the Thanksgiving list has been closed for a while, a single father with five children came to an officer asking for help.
"He's a single father, and for him to come here to do that, to ask for help, it says a lot," Washington said. "If we don't have enough, we'll put our money together, the officers will come together and we will make sure they have dinner."
Capt. John Stanford, head of the district, said his officers take note when they see people in need. They run clothing drives, a haunted house open to all children, and later this year will deliver "Secret Santa" Christmas presents to children. He said about 44 percent of people in the precinct are living below the national poverty line.
"You can't get any better feeling than when you give to a family and you see they really appreciate it," Stanford said.
For LeRoy Lewis and Angela Bell were both on the list for deliveries Tuesday. Both have grandchildren and children they plan on feeding Thursday and both needed a little extra help this year.
"I have seven grandkids and five kids. I started cooking last week," Bell said. "It's a blessing. This box is a blessing for me and my grandkids and my kids."
Lewis expressed similar gratitude. The 63-year-old worked assembling containers until an injury left him disabled and semi-retired.
"It takes a lot of stress off of me and I'm grateful for everything they brought," Lewis said, yelling to the officers as they left. "You have a happy Thanksgiving!"