Each year on Thanksgiving, families and friends get together around the dinner table to give thanks for the blessings they have received. For the last 25 years, one franchise owner has put those thoughts into action with incredible acts of generosity by helping others in the Orlando community.
Eric Holm owns 33 Golden Corral restaurants in Florida and Georgia. For the past quarter century, he has provided free meals each year to more than 20,000 deserving residents of Central Florida on Thanksgiving Day. The annual event is held at the Salvation Army gymnasium in Orlando.
Holm founded “Helpings from the Heart” in 1992 as a way to give back to the community and thank The Salvation Army, which provided a Thanksgiving meal to the Holm family when he was a child. Holm experienced the need for help first-hand. He grew up in a single-parent family and worked to help support his mother as a busboy in a restaurant where she was a waitress. This event now gives Holm the opportunity to help others who may not be able to afford a full Thanksgiving meal.
“No one should ever be hungry on Thanksgiving,” said Holm. “We see the holiday as a way to help others by feeding those who wouldn’t otherwise have enough on the table. In addition to providing them with a great Thanksgiving meal, we are able to put a smile on people’s faces and share in the spirit of the day. I have been humbled by the opportunity to serve others for the last 25 years.”
Holm has always wanted the event to be inclusive – it has never been just to serve the homeless. The event is open to anyone, from minimum wage workers and their families to people who are alone for the holiday. The purpose is to bring the food, fun and family atmosphere to people who might need it. The event features a live band along with games and entertainment such as jugglers and face painters.
To plan and execute an event of this magnitude each year requires a lot of collaboration and support. The dinner is a joint venture between Holm, the Salvation Army and several Orlando corporations, businesses and nonprofit organizations. In addition, more than 1,100 Salvation Army volunteers arrive throughout the day to assist with serving the meal.
While thousands of people flock to the gym for a meal and fellowship during the morning and afternoon, accommodations are made for those who are unable to attend the event. Meals are available for carryout and Salvation Army workers deliver more than 8,000 meals to nursing homes, churches and other community locations throughout the Orlando area for anyone who couldn’t make it to the event.
Jason Gronlund serves as the Executive Chef of Helpings from the Heart and tasked with overseeing the massive effort of preparing a full Thanksgiving meal for 20,000 people in one day. Gronlund and his staff annually fix more than 3,000 pounds of turkey and 3,000 pounds of ham along with plenty of mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, stuffing, cranberries, sweet potatoes, corn, pie, fruit and beverages. He often becomes emotional when he thinks of what the gesture of providing a free meal means to so many people who attend the event.
“The Helpings from the Heart event is something we look forward to all year,” said Gronlund. “A lot of preparation goes into it, but it is a team effort that brings a lot of joy to so many people. It is a wonderful honor to serve so many deserving people in the Orlando community and be able to brighten their day.”
After a lifetime of hard work, today Holm is a multi-millionaire with a passion to give back to those in need. Each year on Thanksgiving he makes sure to remember his experience as a child at the Salvation Army and help those who are less fortunate.
“I feel very thankful to be in a position to be able to provide others with a Thanksgiving meal and enjoy the holiday with others much in the same way my family did when I grew up. I have been blessed and I always enjoy sharing in the spirit of Thanksgiving with others.”
BY THE NUMBERS:
- 20,000 – Free Thanksgiving meals served at the Salvation Army, also available for carry out and delivered to residents throughout Orlando
- 3,000 pounds each of turkey and ham
- 5,000 pounds of mashed potatoes
- 3,500 pounds each of green beans and sweet potatoes
- 800 pounds of gravy
- 400 pounds of cranberry sauce
- 15,000 portions of dessert
- Enough cans of soda when laid end-to-end to stretch a distance of two miles
- 1,100 – Number of Salvation Army volunteers that will arrive throughout the day to assist with serving and delivering meals.
- 500,000 – Estimated number of meals that have been served at the Helpings from the Heart event since it began in 1992.