DECATUR — In any context, “4,000 boxes of food” sounds like a lot, but it’s impossible to really understand the enormity of that number until you’re standing in a cavernous warehouse, surrounded by rows of empty boxes and dozens of pallets of food that need to be packed.

Saturday afternoon in Decatur, about 70 volunteers took just one shift of many in a two-week effort to get out the annual Judy Mason Thanksgiving Baskets, a program that fed more than 22,000 people in the Decatur area last year. The organization is in its 15th year after being founded by local residents Terry and Judy Mason, who is now deceased. The only other thing that has changed is the event’s scale.

“It all started 15 years ago when Terry and Judy were having lunch next to a dollar store, and Terry said, ‘Jude, let’s go fill some laundry baskets with food and bring them to some needy families,’ ” said volunteer organizer Carla Sloan. “They did six baskets that year, and now we’re up to 4,000. The need just keeps increasing.”

Getting out that many boxes every year is a true community effort, requiring the participation of schools, churches and hundreds of individuals. Each year begins with a fundraising cycle and letters that are sent to 1,500 households to raise the $85,000 to $100,000 necessary for the nonprofit organization to purchase all the food. The Midwest Food Bank, Central Illinois Food Bank, Aldi’s and Save-A-Lot provide all the Thanksgiving supplies.

“We are able to guarantee to our donors that every cent we receive goes toward the food, because all our buildings have always been donated,” co-coordinator Julia Livingston said. “We don’t pay any power bills or anything. All the donations come from locals, and we try to keep the spending local as well.”

The rule of thumb is that for every $25 donated, a family of five will be fed for several meals, including Thanksgiving dinner. Boxes include staples such as instant mashed potatoes, gravy mix, egg noodles, a ham and cake for dessert. Other supplies also include breakfast items such as cereal and coffee. Packing is under way already this weekend, but the event will conclude with a major push the afternoon of Sunday, Nov. 24, when Sloan said they need hundreds or even thousands of volunteers at the DemirCo Industries warehouse at 1550 McBride Ave.

“For anyone who wants to come out and go home feeling just wonderful, that Sunday is our big call for volunteers,” she said. “We will probably have anywhere from 800 to 1,000 people here that day, starting at 3 p.m. Then Monday is our distribution day, and we’ll need volunteers again to load boxes into the trucks that will take them all over the area. For the past seven years we’ve had kids from Eisenhower Elite Energy that day helping us load 10 to 300 boxes per truck.”

Livingston was quick to stress that almost anyone would be able to help in some way during the Nov. 24 packing session.

“There’s a job for all ages,” she said. “There’s a children’s room where kids 4 and up can lend a hand. There are seated jobs for older people who can’t do a lot of lifting. Everyone who comes out has the same sentiment afterward and says how powerful the experience was for them.”

For a first-timer, just seeing all the boxes can be a shock. Jessie Mumm of Decatur’s BKD Accounting came Saturday morning to volunteer with his fiance Tiffany Gould and was impressed by the organization’s scope and commitment.

“You don’t know how big it is until it’s all laid out in front of you, you’re walking around the warehouse and there’s a maze of boxes,” he said. “It’s a great chance to give back, especially at this time of year.”

jvorel@herald-review.com|(217) 421-7973

Entertainment Reporter for the Herald & Review

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