Over the past 22 years, Brian Wollenberg has worked to provide thousands in his native Canal Winchester and beyond with free Thanksgiving meals.

"When I was maybe 5 or 6, my parents were involved with St. Vincent de Paul charity," Wollenber said. "I saw giving back at a young age and that really amplified my passion for it."

In 1997, at the age of 23, Wollenberg decided to take matters into his own hands and began providing food to the less fortunate. According to the website of what is now the Byron Saunders Foundation, Wollenberg and a group of friends, relatives and co-workers met at Groveport's Birch Tavern that year to assemble 50 Thanksgiving baskets for the needy, using names provided by food pantries in Groveport and Obetz and from the tavern's own adopt-a-family program.

One of the volunteers was Byron Saunders, whom Wollenberg met while working at Coca-Cola. Saunders was killed in a car accident in 1999, and when Wollenberg received 501(c)(3) nonprofit status for his project in 2002, he decided to name it after Saunders.

"He was just a really good person," Wollenberg recalled. "He helped during the first couple years of the foundation. It was in my heart to name it after him."

Since the group's early days, the scale of giving steadily has increased. The Byron Saunders Foundation provided meals for more than 5,000 families last year and has set a goal of helping 4,000 families with Thanksgiving meals this year, according to its website.

Each basket of food -- valued at between $30 and $35 -- contains an assortment of nonperishable Thanksgiving food items plus a $15 Kroger gift card.

In addition to the original Franklin County chapter and one in Knox County that was set up in 2003, the foundation also opened two new chapters this year in Delaware and Fairfield counties.

Both will produce 100 meals this year, according to Wollenberg, and will run without support from Franklin County next fall and beyond.

The foundation gathers items from food drives, monetary donations and grocery store gift cards from more than 100 groups and businesses.

One of the group's perennial partners is Wollenberg's own alma mater, Canal Winchester High School, which has assisted the foundation for more than 15 years. According to Wollenberg, the school provides more than 200 meals each November, an important chunk of the yearly total.

"Canal's been a great resource for us for a long time now," Wollenberg said. "They get all the kids involved, too, which is great."

Another important donor for the group is the Kraft Heinz Co., whose Groveport distribution operations are managed by Penske Logistics, another donor to the foundation.

According to Tracy Seabrooks, operations manager for the Byron Saunders Foundation, the company provides a massive amount of nonperishables each year for the foundation.

"They're a longtime partner and they've been fantastic," she said. "This year, Kraft donated 27,648 boxes of stuffing, 4,800 jars of gravy and 8,000 boxes of mac and cheese."

The group received another important donation from the Casto Realty Group, which provided rent-free space at 3764 E. Broad St. The 5,000-square-foot space houses the foundation's operations from mid-October until the end of November.

Casto also has provided free service for large trash containers, something Seabrooks said would otherwise consume a significant portion of the foundation's annual budget.

After donations are collected, inventoried and sorted, they will be boxed for individual families and later distributed with the help of 30 to 40 area food pantries, YMCAs, Big Brothers Big Sisters and other groups, she said.

And for Wollenberg, no matter how large the Byron Saunders Foundation becomes, he promises to maintain focus on what really matters.

"The numbers are inspiring, but it's not about that," he said. "I just have this passion for helping now that I've seen how fragile life is; it can be over tomorrow. That's where my urgency comes from."

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