UPPER KEYS -- For most people, Thanksgiving preparations don't begin until sometime in mid to late November. But for Islamorada resident Sherri Trice, they start earlier. Much earlier.
"It takes two to three months to put it all together," Trice said last week.
No, Trice doesn't have the world's biggest family. Nor does she host a massive Thanksgiving dinner, at least not in the traditional sense.
What she does do, however, is take a major role in organizing Island Community Church's annual effort to provide and deliver Thanksgiving meals to anyone from Key Largo to Marathon who needs them.
This year the church expects to deliver approximately 450 such meals, making it the area's largest player when it comes to providing for local families on Turkey Day.
"It seems like a big job, but when it's all over and done with and [the drivers] come back with the stories about people appreciating it, it makes you glad you did it," Trice said last week.
The dinners, which are delivered pre-cooked (they only need to be microwaved) in Styrofoam boxes, are by no means Thanksgiving-light. This year, said Cheri Bohnstedt, an Island Community Church administrator, they'll include turkey and stuffing, of course. They'll also contain mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, a roll and dessert.
They'll be dropped off at the homes of people like Francis Monette, 95, who lives on her own in the Key Largo Village neighborhood, gets by on Social Security and suffers from the progressive eye disease glaucoma.
Monette said she started getting her Thanksgiving meals from Island Community Church after her husband passed away in 2006. Each year she has three meals delivered, so she can celebrate the holiday with sons Joseph and Rodney.
"They're delicious," Monette said. "They are just out of this world. At first we didn't know what to expect. But gosh, when we saw the platter, how big they are, I had enough food for two days."
Putting together so many sizeable meals, and then getting them to so many people, is no easy shakes, of course. That's why folks like Trice start Thanksgiving preparations when the rest of us are still thinking about Labor Day.
The effort involves coordinating with the many local restaurants that prepare and donate food. It requires outreach to social service organizations and schools, which find those in need. And, eventually, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, it takes a crew of some 40 people to pack the meals, and then deliver them up and down the Overseas Highway.
"We have so many restaurants who are helping us this year," Bohnstedt said. "It's amazing in this economy."
One of those is Doc's Diner in Key Largo, which is preparing 200 servings of mashed potatoes, as well as donating 200 to-go boxes.
Doc's owner Jim Boilini said he's glad to help with the Thanksgiving project.
"It's for the betterment of the community," he said. "You've got people willing to reach out and help those people less fortunate in the community, and I'm glad I can participate in any way. That's what makes the Keys so special."
Lesley Quintanilla, program manager for the Center for Independent Living in Key Largo, which is one of the social service agencies that refers people for a home-delivered Thanksgiving meal, said all the effort really makes a difference.
Most of the clients the Center for Independent Living connects with the Island Community Church program are low income and unable to leave the house.
"Many of them don't have a family. So the dinner, it helps them a lot," Quintanilla said.
Trice says she does this every year as part of her church mission.
"People that are in need on Thanksgiving, we try to do something nice once a year to help them out," she said.