From prank to a nonprofit: Cedar Rapids group to give out 500 Thanksgiving dinners, still encouraging signups

People line up in November 2018 as volunteers hand out boxes with the ingredients for Thanksgiving meals, including a tu
People line up in November 2018 as volunteers hand out boxes with the ingredients for Thanksgiving meals, including a turkey, stuffing, rolls and canned vegetables, as part of Operative Give Birds outside the NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids. What started out as a prank now is a nonprofit that’s in its third year of feeding Thanksgiving dinner to families in need. (Gazette photos)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Who would have guessed pranking your buddy could lead to creating a nonprofit that feeds hundreds of families each Thanksgiving.

It all started when a friend of Austin Hermsen, as a joke, placed an ad on Craigslist about a week before Thanksgiving in 2017. It stated Hermsen was giving away turkeys to families in Cedar Rapids and included his contact information.

Hermsen, while he was vacationing with his family in Punta Cana, started receiving numerous phones calls from those in need asking about the giveaway. Of course, Hermsen didn’t know what they were talking about and didn’t have any turkeys to give.

Nick Dusil, now president of Iowa Giving Crew, a nonprofit established this year as a result of that prank, said Hermsen and other friends realized there was real need in the community and decided to start “Operation Give Birds.” They gave away dinners for 80 families that first year and 280 last year.   

The crew, now in its third year, has raised funds to provide a traditional turkey dinner to 500 families in need.

The event, which takes place Sunday, has a sign up list, which is on a first-come, first-served basis, but there also is a waiting list because in past years there have been some no-shows to pick up dinners, Dusil said. They are considering expanding the number of families to serve if funding allows, he said.

The deadline for the waiting list is Sunday because the crew wants to ensure all the meals have been handed out. If anyone is interested in being on the waiting list, send an email to

“We are reaching out to people on the waiting list individually if a spot opens up,” Dusil said. “We are full now, but this list is fluid as people have canceled.”

The nonprofit will continue to have Operation Give Birds as its main charity effort, but the crew is looking to expand its efforts and help more local families, according to its website. The organization will establish an annual fundraising event to fund these future endeavors.

Operation Give Birds will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at Van Meter’s headquarters, 850 32nd Ave. SW. Meals include an 8-pound turkey, sack of potatoes, all the fixings for green bean casserole, can of corn and fresh rolls.

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