“The homeless issue gets the most attention at the holidays, but these folks are in the same situation on February 15 or July 20," says Maddon.
Maddon himself pays for the food and for many of the gifts that he and the Rays Thanksmas volunteers hand out at each stop.
In 2012, as a result of numerous donations from generous Rays fans and Joe's fundraising efforts, Thanksmas was able to give $7,500 each to Salvation Army centers in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Clearwater and the Sallie House in St. Petersburg.
“The goal is to expand Thanksmas in some fashion every year and thanks to the generosity of so many people we were able to do more (in 2012),” said Maddon. “I am very grateful to everyone who was involved in 2011 whether it was by volunteering or donating. That’s really the point of all of this, to create awareness and unite our community.”
Thanksmas began on December 12, 2006 when Joe cooked for the patrons at the St. Vincent de Paul Society, just a few blocks from Tropicana Field. His connection there began the first time he walked into the shelter in the fall of 2005.
Maddon had just been named the Devil Rays' manager when he volunteered to help the organization's annual Thanksgiving dinner for the St. Petersurg's homeless and underprivileged. On that day, Maddon told the executive director of St. Vincent De Paul, Sophie Sampson, that he wanted to get more involved.
Sampson had worked 10 years at St. Vincent De Paul, which is open daily and feeds 22,000 people a month. They are the discarded, the forgotten, the ones the rest of society don't want to associate with, so Sampson had heard desires such as Maddon's before.
"Some people in his position say they want to get involved just for the sake of saying it," Sampson told MLB.com. "But he said to the guys that day, 'Wait until I come over here and cook you a good Italian dinner.' We didn't think anything of it. And then he called and said, 'I'm going to do it.' And I said 'Wow!' It's exciting that he's over there doing it."
Seven years and some 6,000 meals later, the project has become one of the most effective charitable efforts of the Tampa Bay area.
“It keeps growing,” says Maddon. “I want it to continue to grow. Donations are down and the need is greater. They’re telling me that there are actually people who used to be contributors who are now in need. There is so much to this.”
Directed by Joe’s vision, Thanksmas has transformed into an annual week-long event that includes a fundraiser at 717 South, a popular restaurant in South Tampa. Joe spends a day shopping for the food, then a day of cooking in Tropicana Field’s industrial-sized kitchen. The rest of the week, Joe and his volunteers take to the road visiting various Salvation Army Shelters around the Tampa Bay area. The volunteers serve up the food and Joe doles out huge portions of compassion with his spaghetti.
The Rays have visited Salvation Army Shelters in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Bradenton, Clearwater, Port Charlotte and Ft. Myers. For the past two winters, Maddon has taken Thanksmas to his hometown of Hazleton, Pa. In 2009, the Rays began visiting the Sallie House, a safe haven in St. Petersburg for children, who have been removed from their home because of abuse, neglect or abandonment. In addition to a hot meal and a healthy dose of Joe, the kids received new shoes.
“One of the girls got her sneakers and her mom started crying,” remembered Maddon of his first visit to Sallie House. “Her daughter had just made the cheerleading squad, but she couldn’t afford to buy her shoes. A $30 or $40 pair of sneakers, you don’t think that could have an impact on a family like that, but it did.”