John McEntagart sounds like a general— a decidedly cheerful one — as he reels off the who, where and how of feeding more than 1,000 people in Sonoma County on Thanksgiving.
Santa Rosa Local 551 Business Manager John McEntagart and his wife, Darleen, at left, and local organizer Jared Mumm, at right, with other volunteers at a staging site for distributing Thanksgiving meals to Sonoma County families.
“I’m heading right now to our first stop today. Want to make sure all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed,” the Santa Rosa Local 551 Business Manager says almost breathlessly Wednesday morning, Nov. 24, as he lays out his game plan for the next 24 hours.
“In about an hour we’re picking up 100 meals, full turkeys with all the sides, each one feeds six to eight people… Picking them up at a grocery store, Raley’s, in Windsor, and driving them north to Healdsburg. Half are going there for a drive-thru pickup. The other half, we’re loading in volunteers’ cars and they’ll drive them to families’ houses. And tomorrow…”
By which McEntagart meant the holiday itself, when he and IBEW volunteers would pick up and distribute a fresh round of meals — enough to feed another 365 people, including teenagers and young adults in a foster youth program at Santa Rosa Junior College.
A restaurant would prepare the young people’s meals; families would need only to warm the cooked turkeys and trimmings and set the table.
Local 551 ran the operation on a smaller scale in 2020 and picked up the entire tab. McEntagart said they set the same goal in 2021 — 50 full-turkey dinners — but NECA partners came aboard and allowed them to double their efforts. Except for desserts donated by Raley’s, the labor-management committee funded it all.
Organizers also had hands-on help from community volunteers and civic leaders, who were essential to creating a list of recipients. Many were families who’d fallen on hard times during the pandemic.
“John reached out and said ‘We have dinners we’d like to donate to people in need. Can you find 50 families?’” said Healdsburg City Council member Ariel Kelley, who met McEntagart at a labor-candidate training event in 2020.
“I said, ‘John, I could find you 500 families by tomorrow, the need is so great.’”
IBEW members happily pitched in, inspired by their business manager’s energy and spirit, and their local’s tradition of giving back year-round.
“It’s like John is the Thanksgiving Santa Claus,” fourth-year apprentice wireman Leah Edwards said a few days after the whirlwind events. “He would make trips nonstop all day. It’s obviously a challenge and a huge endeavor. I knew I wanted to be part of it.”
Local 551 member Joe Cimino pulls into a staging site with a flatbed truck full of freshly prepared turkey dinners; each box will feed families of six to eight people.
McEntagart is quick to say he couldn’t have done it alone, thanking his many volunteer elves and the invaluable aid of business representatives Joe Tremaine and Jared Mumm.
Edwards worked a midday shift at a drive-thru site on Thanksgiving, checking off cars while her 14-year-old daughter prepared their own family’s multi-generation meal.
“A lot of families had small children with them,” she said. “There was an overall feeling of gratitude and maybe relief, because they didn’t have to worry how they were going to give their kids a nice family dinner.”
Joe Cimino, a past member of the local’s executive board and project manager at R. McClure Electric Inc., hauled the boxed turkeys and trimmings from Raley’s to various hubs in one of his company’s flatbed trucks.
“Pretty much every single person was super happy and appreciative — ‘Thank you, thank you,’” he said, though he also could feel the effects of nearly two years of social distancing.
“Because of COVID, it wasn’t as personable as you’d think. Some people were hesitant in their interactions,” Cimino said. “But they definitely had big smiles on their faces.”
The surge of families in need in Sonoma County, 90 minutes north of San Francisco, is another casualty of the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, in our community we have a lot of workers who are not unionized. We saw so many of them left in the lurch,” Kelley said, citing the region’s vineyards, wine-making operations, and hospitality sector, all hit hard by the shutdown.
While jobs and tourism are springing back, the councilwoman said, “People have been economically devastated, and when you’re in economic hole, it doesn’t go away overnight.”
IBEW locals don’t do good deeds for the publicity but Local 551’s efforts made a splash anyway, from a story in the Santa Rose Press Democrat to social media.
Kelley posted a photo online that pictured her and other volunteers at a distribution site in front of an IBEW banner. “That got shared an insane amount of times,” she said.
She also encountered curiosity about the union while delivering IBEW-marked food boxes to individual homes.
“It lit up people’s lives — little faces coming to the window peering out at us, tears of joy, knowing they were going to have a feast,” Kelley said. “When they saw the insignia they’d ask, ‘What is IBEW?’ And we got to tell them who the IBEW is and what they represent.”