The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Formerly homeless, this man is giving away 2,500 Thanksgiving meals this year

A grocery box being filled for Thanksgiving’s Heroes in Utah last weekend. (Jenni Griffin)

Rob Adams is a successful real estate agent in Utah. But when he was 11, he and his family experienced homelessness and lived in the back of a pickup truck.

Adams’s parents had only enough money for him and his siblings to stay in a motel room one night a week, he said, so for the better part of 1982, they spent the other six nights in the covered bed of their pickup truck in Porter, Tex., just outside Houston.

“My big meal of the day was school lunch, and many nights, there was no dinner,” recalled Adams, now 49.

But just before Christmas that year, a local family from their church offered up their house for two weeks while they headed out of town for the holidays. They left presents under the tree for Adams’s family and filled the fridge with food, including a turkey and homemade pies.

“I cried when I opened that fridge,” said Adams, who now lives in Riverton, south of Salt Lake City, with a family of his own.

“Unless you’ve been hungry, you can’t imagine how I felt,” he said. “I told myself, ‘Someday, if I have money, I’m going to do this for somebody else.’ ”

Adams made good on that promise and started Thanksgiving’s Heroes, a nonprofit that this year gave away 2,500 boxes — each filled with a Thanksgiving feast weighing 53 pounds — to homes in the Salt Lake Valley.

Thanksgiving’s Heroes began in 2015 when Adams raised enough funds to give away turkeys and all the trimmings to 755 families in need. The initiative has grown each year since and, this year, even expanded outside Utah to Tampa, Dallas and Cleveland.

Adams’s wife and four daughters helped him deliver the food boxes in Utah last weekend, with assistance from about 800 volunteers.

“It’s important to make that personal connection,” he said. “There are some people who might feel embarrassed to stand in a line for a box, or maybe they don’t have transportation to get one. With covid this year, we knocked on the door and left everything on the porch, but we know that people are smiling when they unpack their boxes.”

This year’s 53-pound box includes a 20-pound turkey, 10 pounds of potatoes, a package of butter, a gallon of milk, a veggie tray, cranberry sauce, stuffing mix, gravy, olives, a pumpkin pie, whipped cream and ingredients for Adams’s favorite side dish: green bean casserole. It costs the nonprofit about $80 to make each box.

Adams spent his early years in Las Vegas and said that his family’s troubles started with his dad’s job as an air conditioning repairman in Texas. When his parents moved the family to Porter and bought a plot of land with the intention of building a new home, Adams’s father learned that his new job entailed selling customers parts they didn’t need, he said.

“So he ended up without a job, and during the recession of the ‘80s, it was hard to find another one,” Adams said. “My mom cleaned hotels, but there wasn’t enough money for rent. That’s when we parked on our property and camped out in the truck.”

Adams said his parents tried not to let on that the situation was bleak.

“They tried to make it like an adventure and were always looking on the positive side,” he said. “Now that I’m a father, I know the weight my father must have felt on his shoulders each day.”

The lunch ladies at his elementary school knew that he was hungry and always loaded his tray with extra food, Adams recalled.

“I was a growing boy with a big appetite, and those sweet southern ladies always made sure to fix me up,” he said. “I was very grateful.”

The two weeks he spent in a local family’s home over the Christmas holidays was one of the most memorable and happy times of his life, Adams said.

“We pulled up in front of their house, and there was this big Christmas tree shining in the front window,” he said. “And nobody told us, ‘Don’t do this,’ or ‘don’t do that.’ Instead, they handed us the keys, told us to enjoy the holidays, and they’d see us in two weeks.”

When he became successful in real estate in Utah (his family moved to the state during his senior year in high school), Adams put his Thanksgiving’s Heroes idea into motion after a conversation with his mother in 2014, shortly before she died of brain cancer.

“I told her that I’d wanted to give back for many years, and she told me, ‘Please, you need to do it,’ ” he said. “So my first year, I set out to feed 10 families, and it quickly grew. Everyone wanted to donate to help, and we ended up feeding hundreds.”

Weeks in advance of the Thanksgiving holiday, Adams accepts applications and nominations on his website for the free meal boxes. He buys the food himself every year from a local grocery distributor, then he recruits volunteers to help him load everything up and distribute the food the weekend before Thanksgiving.

“It makes my Thanksgiving,” said Sela Kauvaka, 41, who delivers boxes every year with her sister, Emma Lomu. “This year especially, a lot of people are hurting. To see their faces light up — there’s nothing like it.”

Another volunteer, Kallie Tueller, 23, said she was surprised last year to come home after her deliveries and find a Thanksgiving’s Heroes box sitting on her own front porch.

“I’d been having a hard time, but felt I didn’t deserve one because I have no children,” she said. “But somebody had nominated me for one. I felt such gratitude — that box fed me for a week and a half.”

Single or married, children or no children, it doesn’t matter, Adams said.

“We don’t want anyone to go without,” he said. “Nobody should go hungry in this country.”

Adams gets choked up, he said, when he reads the messages of gratitude left every year on the Thanksgiving’s Heroes Facebook page. This one in particular touched him:

“Thank u — I needed the box,” wrote a new mother. “We will have an awesome Thanksgiving. The turkey alone enabled me to buy baby’s milk and diapers. Big hug, much love.”

“What we’re doing is about hope — it’s the reason I’ve kept this going year after year,” Adams said. “You never know how you might touch someone.”

Read more:

I will be lonely on Thanksgiving. But that will not stop me from celebrating.

Utah hospital workers rushed to NYC to help with covid in the spring. NYC workers just returned the favor.

It started as a macho bake-off between dads. Months later, they’ve delivered 15,000 cookies to essential workers.

Her daughter died, so she sat at the teen’s sewing machine and made masks to ‘create my own therapy’

Have a story for Inspired Life? Here’s how to submit.