It was barely 40 degrees when Merced resident Mercedes Jimenez started the line for free turkeys early Monday at the Merced County Fairgrounds.
Lining up at midnight for the Monday event, she received the first of 500 free turkeys and almond packages 12 hours later when local farmer and developer Greg Hostetler, along with Joseph Gallo Farms cheese, started his annual giveaway.
At noon Tuesday, Hostetler will hold the same event at the Los Banos Fairgrounds in the O’Banion Auditorium.
“It gets like this,” Jimenez said when asked why she came so early, pointing to the line of hundreds of people behind her.
For the past five years, Hostetler has worked to turn the annual giveaway into a larger event that helps more people. The inspiration came from his late wife, Cathie, who started the turkey giveaway more than 30 years ago.
“Living is giving,” Hostetler said, recalling a phrase Cathie used. “I’ve been blessed my whole life. So it’s a good thing to give back.”
Lori Gallo with Joseph Gallo Farms said participating in the event helped her recognize the hardships some of the recipients go through.
“Everyone here has their own story of why this is meaningful,” Gallo said, emotionally recalling the story of a man in line who told her that he was getting the turkey because he lost his job.
Merced resident Donna Nelson said receiving a free turkey helps when living on a fixed income and Social Security.
“To me, (Hostetler) is paying out of his pocket for people who can’t afford it,” Nelson said. “I appreciate it.”
While no one else waited half the day, as Jimenez did, many spent hours in line, biding their time with activities. Some kids played football in the parking lot while parents set up makeshift tables for office work.
It was Merced resident Vera Jackson’s third time waiting in line for a free turkey with her family. So she knew how to keep busy.
“This year, I came prepared with a laptop, table and chairs,” Jackson said, adding that the free turkey was one less thing she had to pay for.
Jackson’s 13-year-old daughter, Verajiah, said waiting in line wasn’t the most pleasant experience, but she kept busy and she can’t wait until Thanksgiving Day.
“It was really freezing,” Verajiah said. “I kept busy drawing, coloring and playing on mom’s phone.”
As Jackson and her daughter exited the Merced fairgrounds grandstand Monday, they were greeted by Hostetler, whom Jackson said responded to her email asking about the event.
Hostetler, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s 2016 “Man of the Year,” said his experience growing up as a cancer survivor and keeping his business afloat during the recession have made him thankful for his personal business success.
“You can’t take money with you,” Hostetler said. “If you have money to spend, it’s good to give.”