ST. PAUL, Minn. — Three of the biggest kids at heart in the building — Brian O'Neill, Dalton Risner and Viktor the Viking — finished serving dinner and headed toward the gym's play area.
O'Neill joined in for some bag tosses on a cornhole set, Risner picked up a "sword" made by a balloon artist and accepted duels, and Viktor did Viktor things to the delight of young people at The Salvation Army Citadel Worship and Service Center on West 7th in St. Paul.
O'Neill and Risner, teammates Kirk Cousins, Andrew DePaola, Nick Mullens, Austin Schlottmann, Ryan Wright and Nick Vigil joined their significant others in dishing up Thanksgiving-styled meals and warm smiles to families on Tuesday.
In addition to the food, photo opportunities, big yard games, the balloon artist, face painting and a caricature artist added to the fun atmosphere. Vikings Chief Operating Officer Andrew Miller and his wife Jill spent significant time retrieving footballs tossed at and into an inflatable target.
Jasmine, who is a survivor of domestic violence and single mom who works in health care, appreciated so many elements, but particularly seeing her four children have so much fun.
"After going through transition, I'm super excited to be able to give them this moment they're never going to forget," Jasmine said. "The best part about being a single mom is when you can put a smile on your kids' faces.
"It's amazing to see them come in and treat everyone like they've met them before," Jasmine added.
Cousins, who is recovering from an Oct. 29 Achilles injury and had his cast removed earlier that morning, worked the room with the help of a walking boot and crutches after dishing out pie from a seated position on the serving line. He gladly posed for pictures and interacted with the guests, even though he probably would have joined the big kids (O'Neill and Risner) for more of the activities if he were fully healthy.
"We arrived and one of the kids was just drenched in sweat," Cousins said. "You could tell he was competing, playing in sports here in the gym all night, and I love to see that, because I was him when I was his age. That's how I would have been here. It was fun to see him in the line while serving pie.
"It's a great event and one we've been able to do the last few years," Cousins added. "I've really enjoyed it."
In addition to again attending with his wife Julie, Cousins also brought Cooper, their oldest of two sons.
"As he's getting older, he can be a part of things. You want to teach your son what it means to serve and give and brighten other people's days," Cousins explained. "We believe it truly is more blessed to give than receive."
DePaola said it was "truly special" for the players and their significant others to have an opportunity to give back to the community together.
"This community is so strong and our fans are so great, any time I can give back, I'm all in," said DePaola, who first became the Vikings long snapper in November 2020.
"It's great to see Kirk, especially with what he went through, just to have him around, I was talking about this earlier, but he's a huge part of the culture we have around here, and he really adds a lot to it," DePaola said. "Just being able to see him outside of the football world is pretty cool. Knowing Kirk as well as I do, it doesn't shock me [he participated while recovering]. If I didn't know him, it probably would. That's just the type of guy he is, regular guy, can talk to him about anything — and really anything. He's almost like an encyclopedia. He's an awesome guy."
View photos of Minnesota Vikings players serving Thanksgiving dinner at The Salvation Army.
The Citadel Worship and Service Center is one of seven Twin Cities locations through which The Salvation Army serves hundreds of individuals and families each week.
Josh Polanco, Captain with The Salvation Army, appreciated "an opportunity that a lot of these kids would not get."
"To have it right here in their neighborhood is really important because this is important to them. The Vikings coming here really makes a big impact on their lives," Polanco said. "This is one of our busiest centers here in St. Paul. … There's a lot of need in the community. We serve a lot of homeless families and people looking for a hand up."
Relief efforts by The Salvation Army include food shelves, rent and/or utility assistance and the Pathway of Hope program that is proving effective in helping families emerge from difficult situations.
"The best part about The Salvation Army is there's resources for everyone, no matter what their situation is," Jasmine said. "Food shelf, summer programs, we did the coat program, school supplies and backpacks, Pathways of Hope for people coming out of domestic violence."
Cousins noted The Salvation Army has "so much respect across the whole country."
"This is just a small sample of the work they do to uplift people and help them to a better life, so it's fun to use the platform as a pro football player to come alongside them and the community and hopefully put a smile on people's faces," Cousins said.
Polanco explained how philanthropic organizations are still facing as many or more challenges in providing relief on the other side of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. There are multiple opportunities for people to join The Salvation Army's mission through food or toy donations, or by volunteering.
"A lot of people believe because the pandemic is gone, the need must be gone, but actually it's not," Polanco said. "We stayed at the same level or even more consistently even now. We need more assistance when it comes to volunteering at our food shelves. We need donations of food and monetary donations so we can keep our food shelves stocked. The need is great.
"Inflation is high, so a lot of the families are making decisions between putting food on the table and paying their rent and utilities," Polanco added. "This is why it's important to keep these centers fully stocked, fully resourced with volunteers, monetary donations and food support."