SALT LAKE CITY — Even as he was receiving a helping hand in the form of free Thanksgiving dinner and winter clothing, Jay Kona was thinking of how to pay that kindness forward.
Kona said his friend has been without adequate footwear, and it has been making his feet hurt. So when Kona laid eyes upon the more than 1,100 pairs of new shoes being given away to Salt Lake City’s homeless at Vivint Smart Home Arena on Monday, he immediately snatched up a pair not for himself, but for his buddy.
“I’ve seen his shoes. The bottom of his soles are beat up,” he said, patting the shoebox tucked securely under his arm.
Kona’s act of thoughtfulness was one of thousands being carried out inside the home of the Utah Jazz, where volunteers from Larry H. Miller Sports & Entertainment, some members of the Miller family and the NBA G League’s Salt Lake City Stars players were putting on the company’s 19th annual “We Care – We Share” Thanksgiving dinner for the city’s poor and homeless.
Steve Miller, vice chairman of the board of directors for the Larry H. Miller Management Corp. and son of the corporation’s namesake, helped dish up the traditional Thanksgiving fare along with his wife and five children.
“It’s really humbling, to be honest, to see the circumstances (those who received meals) are coming from,” Miller told reporters. “It’s a great reminder … to remember our roots and that none of us are any better than anyone else.”
Miller estimated partway through Monday’s event that more than 3,000 people would be served with a free meal, similar to the number served last year. When the event first began in the late 1990s, about 700 people were served.
Besides shoes, there were coats, shirts, pants and several other clothing items handed out at the arena.
“We do this … to give back, to be part of the lives of the less fortunate. … It’s one of the dates on the calendar that we circle,” Miller said. “It’s fun for us as a family to make a difference.”
Gail Miller, owner of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, said in a statement that “we feel fortunate to be able to pay it forward by helping those in our midst who are experiencing life’s hardships.”
“May we all feel gratitude for our blessings — especially at this time of year,” she said.
Kona joked that the turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes were so good that it had him “seeing double.”
“I … thanked each of them for what they’re doing, for taking time out,” he said of the volunteers serving food.
For Rudy Cordova, being among people who cared about his well-being was as beneficial as the free meal itself,” saying “it really did give me hope.”
“The interaction with the people, for me, was good. It put me in a better place,” Cordova said. “I’ve been around people who have been really negative.”
He added that “it’s awesome that the community’s helping out.”
Kailani Leota, who has been coming to the Thanksgiving dinner for several years, felt the same way. She now has friends who work at the arena, she said.
“I love it,” Leota said. “(I am) happy and feel loved. People here treat people like family.”
Steve Miller said the dinner is one of several initiatives over the holiday season that the company is planning. The organization said in a release that holiday shopping trips for disadvantaged youth, hospital visits from the Utah Jazz players and staff and other efforts are in store.
Vivint Arena will also be home to a free Christmas sing-along on Dec. 18.
Earlier this year, the Miller family pledged up to $10 million in matching funds toward programming at three shelters to be built in Salt Lake County in 2019. Donations can be made at www.homelessutah.org.
Utah Food Services, Salted Honey Hospitality and Salt Lake City Mission also helped coordinate the free Thanksgiving meal and clothing giveaway.
“It’s a tremendous feeling to know you’re meeting someone’s most critical needs,” said Rev. Joe Vazquez, co-executive director of the Salt Lake City Mission.
The mission ministry is especially busy during the holidays. The organization will be hosting its own free “Great Thanksgiving Banquet” from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday at the Christian Life Center, 1055 N. Redwood Road.
Rev. Vazquez said the mission calls the flurry of holiday charitable activity the “season of hope.” As the cold weather deepens, the homeless are in special need of others reaching out to help, he said.
“Soon, and very soon, the temperatures are going to drop, so getting a new coat this time of year … can be a huge thing for them,” he said.
Rev. Vazquez made a plea to anyone who feels an urge to help the homeless to donate items or money to organizations that specialize in serving them at events like the one held Monday, rather than give cash to panhandlers.
“The truth is, it’s not really helping them,” he said. “So give to your local charities (instead).”