Hundreds gathered for an early Thanksgiving dinner on Tuesday — and to show their thanks for the year's blessings by giving back to those in need through the Salvation Army.
The annual Salvation Army Kettle Kickoff luncheon traditionally signals the start of the holiday bell ringing and fundraising campaign. Money collected during the campaign funds the community Christmas dinner, helps purchase toys and food for the Turlock Together program and supports the nonprofit's year-round services.
The highlight of the event was the Kettle Klash, where teams of community members have five minutes to collect as many contributions as they can from luncheon guests. This year's top teams were We Can Build It (Clark Hulbert, Crystal Nyquist and Jerry Powell) with $14,050 in donations; Just Plain Nuts (Mark Edsall, Nick Hackler and Don Wilkey) with $10,771; and The Bucket Brigade (Jim Madsen, Abe Rojas and Dennis Doo) with $4,484.
An anonymous donor contributed an additional $50,000, which made the total amount of funds raised at the Kettle Kickoff $89,526.64 — thousands more than last year's total of $85,000.
"Turlock is a wonderful community and you all have big hearts," Turlock Mayor John Lazar said after announcing the fundraising total.
The impact the donations will make in the community was brought to light by featured speaker Jerry Yang. Yang won the World Series of Poker Championship in 2007 and $8.25 million, 10 percent of which he donated to several charities.
Before he was a poker champion, however, he was a Hmong refugee fleeing the Communist takeover of his native Laos.
"Winning the World Series of Poker and $8.25 million never compared to the day that they called my father, Mr. Yang, (and said) your family can go to America," Yang said.
"When my brother and I were on a plane coming to America, passing over San Francisco, I thought it was going to be heaven. What I thought the most, it wasn't freedom, it wasn't education, it wasn't having a lot of toys and clothes. Can you guess? It was food. And that is why we're here today...I, for one, know what it's like to be hungry.
"Because of folks like you today, many people out there still have hope," Yang said.
The Salvation Army is still looking for volunteer bell ringers to man collection stations around town. To sign up, call the Turlock Salvation Army at 667-6091.