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Vikings Give Thanks by Giving Back Through Multiple Community Events

The Minnesota Vikings have a lot to be thankful for.

Sure, there's the 8-2 record. But players, coaches and staff members are grateful for the platform they have to make a difference beyond the football field – especially around the holidays.

Last week, multiple Vikings – and members of the Vikings family – teamed up to serve Thanksgiving meals and provide food and support throughout the Twin Cities.

"This organization is committed to leaving a positive difference in this community. It's about a lot more than football," quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "Certainly winning is important, and it all starts there, but I think it's important to use our platform to make a positive difference here and really steward well what we've been given."

Below are recaps of various Thanksgiving events hosted by Cousins and Andrew DePaola, Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, Eric Kendricks and Patrick Peterson.

Cousins & Andrew DePaola host Thanksgiving dinner for St. Paul community | By Lindsey Young

Cousins is used to dishing the football out to his receivers.

But last week, he swapped his purple jersey for a red apron and served up green bean casserole, instead.

Cousins joined teammate Andrew DePaola in hosting and serving a Thanksgiving dinner at The Salvation Army for the surrounding St. Paul community.

Families were invited to the special event that involved an entire Thanksgiving meal buffet-style, as well as games and activities set up for young people.

Cousins and DePaola were joined by kicker Greg Joseph and his girlfriend, Taylor; Amy DePaola; Julie Cousins; Ally Kendricks; Caitlin Thielen and son Asher; Ariel Bailey, fiancée of Vikings defensive quality control coach Steve Donatell; and Megan Pettine, wife of Assistant Head Coach Mike Pettine. Vikings Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer Karin Nelsen also supported the effort.

"It's a group effort. I'm on the green bean casserole, my wife's on the stuffing, Caitlin Thielen's on the mashed potatoes. It's fun to have everybody here," Kirk Cousins said. "It's really great to connect with and hear the stories of people who cheer us on all week."

DePaola took his serving assignment just as seriously (well, almost) as he does long snapping every game day.

"I was Gravy Extraordinaire, and it was amazing," he said. "Not a lot of people wanted gravy, which kind of concerns me a little bit, because I put gravy on almost everything. So I wonder if I'm doing something wrong. But I had a really good pour; I'm pretty good.

"I think it's important to give back and be out in the community, just engaging with the fans," DePaola added. "I think it's awesome. They can just see that we're normal people. This hits near and dear to my wife's heart. She really likes to get involved, she really enjoys giving back, and anytime we can give our time back to the community, we try to do that."

Though Eric Kendricks couldn't attend that evening, his wife Ally was proud to represent. After all, it's Eric who most motivates her to make a difference where she can.

"Eric's a huge inspiration for my desire to give back. He is such a champion for giving back to the community – especially helping kids and families," she said. "So I feel like if there's any opportunity for me to get out there, especially in Minneapolis – another city we love and adore – and help out, so that's hugely inspirational for me."

Kirk and Julie regularly have date night on Tuesdays, and they embraced the opportunity to spend their "date" serving a meal at The Salvation Army.

"We absolutely love Thanksgiving. We love family and togetherness, so we just thought what a great way [to give back]," Julie said. "We still have our babysitter, and this is our date, and I just absolutely love it."

"It's always amazing for us to get together and do things that have nothing to do with football – it's less stressful," Ally laughed. "So it's just fun spending time together and bonding on another level."

The Salvation Army Major Steve Kounthapanya smiled as he watched DePaola and Joseph tossing football with young people while some of the women joined a group of girls at a coloring table.

"This is exciting to see everyone together and to see the Vikings here, showing that they care about the community," Kounthapanya said. "Just imagine how hard it is to see a Vikings player, and now these [families] get to meet these Vikings players. It's like an early Christmas gift for them.

"Our mission is to serve the human needs without discrimination," he added. "Anyone who walks into our facility who needs help and needs to be supported, we always open our arms and help them."

The Vikings have a longstanding history of making a difference off the field, dating back to the late Head Coach Dennis Green implementing "Community Tuesdays," which now take place across the NFL.

But this season's Vikings team has an even more special feel to it.

"It's really been a great community this year," Julie Cousins said. "I don't know if this group can get any better than it is this year. I mean, these are my best friends, and it's so fun to be serving with them."

Added Andrew DePaola: "We're a pretty close-knit group, and I think that shows because we look to do events together outside of the football facility. … I think it just speaks to the team and who we are as just people in general."

View photos as Vikings WR Adam Thielen and The Salvation Army team up to host a Turkey giveaway for families in the Twin Cities.

Thielen Foundation & The Salvation Army provide 2,000 turkeys | By Sam Thiel

In addition to Jefferson, Peterson, Cousins, DePaola and Kendricks providing Thanksgiving meals, Adam and Caitlin Thielen also distributed turkeys and fixings to families in need.

The Thielen Foundation partnered with The Salvation Army of Minnesota and Jennie-O on Nov. 15 to provide 2,000 turkeys for the fifth consecutive year. The Thielens handed out the first 100 turkeys at The Salvation Army's Lakewood Service Center.

Adam said seeing the expressions of gratitude from the people they were serving makes it worthwhile.

"I feel like every time we come out here, just seeing the faces on the people and how thankful they are, that's why we do it," the Vikings wide receiver said. "When they're so appreciative and so thankful for just the simplest thing as a meal for their family during the holidays, [it] is really important for us to continue to do that.

"I know there's a bunch of my teammates and our friends that are doing the same thing right now, which I think is really cool because there's a big need for it. It's more than just 100 families, it's a lot more than that," Adam continued. "[I'm] thankful for my teammates and the Vikings and this community for all they're doing."

Adam added it was special to be able to share the experience with the couple's two younger children, Hudson and Cora (the oldest Asher was in school) and continue to teach them the importance of giving back.

"I think it's important for our kids to see how important it is to give back, especially to families that maybe don't have those resources to have a great holiday season," Adam said. "We think that Thanksgiving is very important — to be around family and to be able to have a good meal. And then Jennie-O being able to donate those turkeys, especially in today's times, we're very thankful."

The Salvation Army Lieutenant Adam Hines said they're extremely grateful for the partnership with the Thielen Foundation.

"We just want to express our gratitude and our thanks to the Thielen Foundation for being here and partnering with The Salvation Army to make this an event to provide hope and inspiration for people to enjoy this season of Thanksgiving that we're about to enter," Hines said.

Hines added he hopes the event inspires others to get out in the community and help people in need.

"I think it serves as a reminder that everybody can give and everybody has an opportunity to give and it inspires others to be like that," Hines said. "To see people like Adam and Caitlin who do this regularly, I think it builds a sense of community. … Today's an opportunity to say, 'We're here to care. We're here to serve. We're here to inspire.' "


Jefferson teams up to give back for Thanksgiving | By Lindsey Young

Jefferson was all smiles.

The Vikings receiver had kicked off Week 10 with a crowd-wowing catch and huge road win over the Bills; just two days later, Jefferson teamed up with the Vikings and UnitedHealthGroup to distribute 1,200 Thanksgiving meals to community members.

"There's a lot to smile about. … This is a special moment, giving back," Jefferson said. "It's just a special day. I love Thanksgiving. It's about being with family, being with the ones you love, and to be here and give back is very special to me."

The Vikings and UHG partnered with 15 nonprofit organizations to work with their existing networks to select families that would most benefit from extra support this holiday season. Meals donated included a frozen turkey, instant potatoes, gravy, a can of veggies, cranberries and a dessert.

To celebrate the fifth annual Thanksgiving Drive-Thru at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center, five families received a "Golden Ticket" prize. Three families received a memorabilia item autographed by Jefferson, and two families were surprised with groceries for a year, courtesy of UHG and Hy-Vee.

"We're gonna bless you today, all right?" Jefferson told a woman as he offered her a hug. "You got the Golden Ticket! You've got groceries for a whole year, so you're gonna be good.

"It's amazing to be a part of this," he later added. "I'm just honored to be here – blessed to be here."

Vikings Legends Scott Studwell, Rickey Young, Stu Voigt and Esera Tuaolo assisted during the event, as did Viktor the Viking.

UnitedHealthcare of Minnesota CEO Brett Edelson, Vikings COO Andrew Miller and Vikings Chief Marketing Officer Martin Nance also were on-site to help pack meals and champion the cause.

"UnitedHealth Group has been working with some amazing community partners to help address food insecurity in Minnesota," Edelson said. "We are fortunate to partner with the Minnesota Vikings on these efforts, especially during the holiday season.

"We are proud to support these efforts around food insecurity and are honored to have such an energetic and committed partner like the Vikings," he added.

Nance said the event exemplified what the Vikings organization aims to accomplish off the football field.

"We're able to do it with our great partners at UnitedHealthGroup, alongside Justin Jefferson, [a] face of the team," he said. "He's such a great representative of this organization, and we were able to come together and extend meals to families in need during the holiday season.

"The Vikings are obviously a visible member of this community," Nance added. "To see them cheer for us on Sundays but then turn around and experience the outreach from a community perspective from the team, I think that's pretty powerful."


Kendricks hosts drive-through meal distribution | By Sam Thiel

It's not often you hear the words "Thanksgiving" and "car wash" in the same sentence.

But for Kendricks, those words were combined last week for a unique experience.

Kendricks partnered with Soapy Joe's Car Wash in St. Paul and The Salvation Army of Minnesota this past Thursday to help distribute 100 Thanksgiving meals to local families as part of the inaugural Eric Kendricks Thanksgiving Giveaway.

Families received the meals through a drive-through setup. In addition to the meals, each family was given a ticket for a free car wash at the location before the holiday.

Kendricks, who is a car enthusiast, said he was grateful to be able to team up with the car wash for his first Thanksgiving event.

"I'm just happy that we're able to partner with Soapy Joe's and The Salvation Army of Minnesota to give back 100 meals to these families," Kendricks said. "Me personally, I'm really into cars. I love washing my own car and things like that, it's a passion of mine. It made sense as far as the right fit, [and] we all wanted to give back so we made something work."

Kendricks added it's extremely important to give back to the communities that do so much for him and his family.

"This community serves me. I've been here for eight years now, and it's been a wonderful community to be a part of," Kendricks said. "When people ask me why I give back, there were times as a kid when I needed things. Whether it was family friends, teachers at school, [or] coaches, I was given a helping hand to get where I'm at today. It's emotional for me because it's serious, it's real life and I recognize that and I want to give back when I can."

Several of Kendricks' Vikings teammates held events throughout the week to donate Thanksgiving meals or turkeys. He said it's unique to see the bond they've created in the locker room spread out to helping those in need within the community.

"My team's really special. We have a lot of guys who come from all walks of life, all different backgrounds. Everybody's so close in the sense to where we recognize how important community is and it infiltrates into our locker room," Kendricks said. "We're close-knit in the locker room, but we're close to our communities at home as well as the community in Minnesota and we take that seriously."


Peterson provides 200 turkeys & meals | By Craig Peters

Peterson provided 200 families with turkeys and accompaniments for a full Thanksgiving meal through his P2 Foundation for Success.

Peterson teamed up with The Open Door, a Dakota County food shelf/hunger-relief organization, and distributed the meals last week at Burnsville High School.

And he had help from Vikings safety Harrison Smith.

Peterson fielded turkeys passed by Smith and executed the exchange with warm, welcoming smiles.

"I wanted to be able to lend a helping hand," said Peterson, who began Thanksgiving distributions in Arizona in 2015 and continued them last year after signing with Minnesota.

"It's awesome, and this is one of many things we'll do," Peterson said. "This time of year is probably my favorite. We've got Shop with a Jock coming up, but being able to see these families and their smiles means a lot."

The Open Door Executive Director Jason Viana said the distribution helped continue a founding principle of the organization that is based on dignity.

"We want to make it easier for people who need help. It's hard to ask for help, and anything we can do to make it easier for people is great, but when you can make people feel special, it's even better," Viana said. "For someone like Patrick to take time out, to be present and to make this impact, you can see people's faces today. It means a lot more when you know someone that important knows you exist and cares that you're doing OK."

The Open Door is in its 13th year and feeds between 14,000 and 20,000 people per month in Dakota County. The organization provides distributions and deliveries of healthy foods and even offers people the opportunity to grow their own produce free of charge at one of 300 plots across 13 community gardens within Dakota County.

Viana said few realize poverty exists in suburbs.

"We make sure our clients get healthy food in a dignified manor," Viana said. "We have 30 different places we take food across the county, whether it's a senior living facility, an elementary school, a low-income neighborhood, and we also have a come-and-get-it food shelf more traditional in style to make sure that people have access."

Viana said some measures that increased to enable help during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic have ended, but "we've seen numbers that are as high as we saw at the beginning of the pandemic, so it tells us that so many people in our community are on that knife's edge of needing support, and anything we can do to make it easier for people makes a big difference."

The distribution funded by Peterson's foundation was a welcome addition to The Open Door's ongoing mission.

"It really helps people at a time when they don't have to sacrifice their traditions because of their budget," Viana said.