This Thanksgiving, St. Columbkille Catholic Church is helping those struggling financially to forget their hardships for a day.

The Papillion Catholic church has been delivering Thanksgiving meal baskets to those in need for the past 15 years. They provide recipients with everything they need to cook a delicious dinner and celebrate the holiday’s traditions around the table.

On Sunday, hundreds of meals were delivered to people living in Sarpy County that wouldn’t be able to afford a Thanksgiving meal on their own. Among those delivering the meals were the Kleffners: Mardi, Paul and their son, Jacob.

The family started volunteering for the event when their children Jacob, 22, and Allison, 23, started kindergarten, as they wanted to teach them about the importance of giving.

“It was very important for them to understand that everybody doesn’t have it as good as they did,” Mardi said.

As an Omaha firefighter, Paul said he interacts with people from “all walks of life.” He sees first-hand the effect poverty has on community members, which makes it important to him to give back.

“We’re very blessed,” Paul said. “We can show thanks for what we got and hopefully we can help families out.”

Pulling off a program this big requires a lot of preparation and volunteers, said Becky Grant, Thanksgiving meal committee member. Planning begins in August. Grant said they start by contacting organizations previously involved to see if they’re interested in helping again this year.

At the end of October, the church gathers names of recipients via the church’s St. Vincent de Paul Society or from the Sarpy County Holiday Assistance Program. Some call the church directly and ask for help.

Then, 80 volunteers assemble the 350 boxes, and nearly 100 drivers deliver them to two or three assigned drop-off sites.

Volunteers also print directions from the church to each meal drop-off. While Grant said it’s time-consuming, the directions help drivers find houses in rural farm land areas.

To find each drop-off site, the Kleffners developed a system: Mardi navigates while Paul drives. Jacob listened to music waiting to help carry in the food.

The three St. Columbkille parishioners drove across Sarpy County in a mostly silent car on the sunny, 60-degree day. They sipped Pepsi’s and occasionally discussed memories from previous years.

Once the Kleffners found each residence, the Papillion family unpacked their blue truck and knocked on the door with smiles on their faces.

They delivered to four residences this year — a senior living facility, a farm and two typical suburban houses.

The first few years delivering meals, Paul said it bothered him to drop-off to suburban houses with nice cars parked out front. Overtime, he said, he’s learned not to judge people without knowing their specific situations.

For example, some houses look nice but might have multiple generations crammed inside so they can afford to live there. Others might have recently undergone unexpected financial hardships from a job loss or medical bill.

Other residences resemble what one would expect poverty to look like.

Mardi remembers one year delivering to a single mother living in a small apartment while in nursing school. She still wonders how that woman is doing and prays for her periodically.

“You talk to the families a little bit when you’re delivering, and some of them will tell you why they’re struggling or what’s going on,” Mardi said. “Then, you just pray for them and just offer, I don’t know, a little bit of kindness.”

They’re embarrassed, Paul said, so rather than discussing their financial situation, they might want to talk about everyday topics like the weather. This year, most of the recipients simply said “thanks” and offered a smile and hug.

While drivers only deliver to houses within Sarpy County, the church sometimes receives calls from people in Omaha. If they have enough food left over, Grant said St. Columbkille allows them to come pick up food from the church. Boxes are also delivered to the Juan Diego Center in South Omaha. They also delivery to the Springfield Food Pantry.

If residents aren’t home, drivers bring their food back to the church. Within the next few days, recipients can either set up a time for it to be delivered or to come pick it up.

Grant said the church tries to give drivers drop-off locations somewhat close together, but with so many to assign it doesn’t always work out. Some finish within minutes, while for others it takes hours. The Kleffners finished in about two hours, after dropping off four meals within Gretna and Papillion.

After delivering the meals, Mardi said they feel a sense of accomplishment for giving back.

“While we’re sitting around our Thanksgiving table on Thursday, we’ll know that we helped out a lot of families that now will have a meal,” Mardi said.

In future years, Grant said the church will continue to help so long as the demand exists.

“I don’t see the need dropping,” Grant said. “People keep coming and saying they need help. So, as long as people need help, we try to help them.”

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