As Minnesotans sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, few will be aware of the unseen angels at work around them. 

One will be sitting in his car at a gas station in St. Paul, holding a freshly made turkey dinner for a homeless man who has arranged to meet him there. Another will be driving Thanksgiving dinner for eight to a grandma in northern Minnesota who is too frail to cook for her family. Another will deliver meals to an exhausted Shoreview couple whose daughter just endured life-threatening surgery.

Hundreds of these angels are prepared to take flight across Minnesota and Wisconsin on Thursday, delivering more than 4,000 free meals in 80 cities and towns. They don't work for a big social-service agency. Don't ask about income guidelines. They are simply volunteers for a massively popular organization that stepped into a Thanksgiving Day void.

"Most people don't like to be seen as needing help, so we like to remain anonymous," said Tracy Turner, who launched Unseen Angels in 2007 with a modest donation of six dinners.

Until Unseen Angels appeared, families who couldn't afford Thanksgiving meals typically had two options: They could go to a meals program in a church or a center, or pick up holiday foods at a food shelf. The first was embarrassing to some families, and the second didn't work well if the family didn't have the right pans and kitchen equipment to prepare a big meal.

"So we're bringing the meals to their houses ... and keeping their babies running around someplace they're used to," Turner said.

Inspired to help

Turner is an unlikely Thanksgiving Day champion. She's a manager of a title company in White Bear Lake who lives in Somerset, Wis., where she and her husband own a few rental apartments. It was after a conversation with one of her renters that inspiration struck.

The renter was young, poor and pregnant: It broke Turner's heart. So she and some friends baked turkeys, mashed potatoes, dressing, pumpkin pie -- and more -- and delivered it to her and five other families.

Energized, the crew cooked dinners for 13 families the next year, plus residents at Grace Place homeless shelter in Somerset. By 2009, it was 57 families and Grace Place. Then, word spread like wildfire about Unseen Angels, and people and nonprofit agencies began calling. More than 4,300 meals were delivered last year.

This week, Turner was working literally day and night to oversee the logistics of another record-breaking year -- more than 8,000 meals. About 4,000 were destined for folks eating at different meals programs that Unseen Angels now coordinates with. The rest are doorstep deliveries.

Thanksgiving Central is the dining hall at YMCA's Camp St. Croix outside Hudson, Wis., where hundreds of volunteers flocked this week. Some taped giant cardboard boxes for the meals to travel in. Some whipped vats of mashed potatoes. Others sliced turkey and pumpkin pies -- over and over and over.

Turner, meanwhile, sat at a table facing three cellphones and a calculator. She was waiting to hear from a hardware store. She needed 250 plastic buckets, fast, so she could move the mounds of potatoes and other foods into a nearby freezer truck.

But the other phones kept ringing. Turner picked up. It was a sobbing mother who had been evicted from her apartment. Could Unseen Angels bring food to her temporary housing?

No problem.

The phone rang again. It was a mother with two kids and two foster kids a few miles away.

Turner picked up another call. This time her eyes welled with tears. The caller said her son had died two days ago, and she had four hungry kids.

"That is why we do this," said Turner, after assuring the woman that Thanksgiving meal would be there.

Army of supporters

Turner said she is hosting Thanksgiving for 8,000 with a roughly $12,000 budget, thanks to donations from businesses such as Lakeside Foods in New Richmond, Gregory's Foods in Eagan, Wal-Mart in Stillwater and Trio Supply Co., as well as KapStone Paper and Packaging, in the Twin Cities.

They've helped provide 65,000 pounds of turkey, 3,800 pounds of mashed potatoes, 1,500 pounds of sweet potatoes, 70 cases of corn, 8,100 dinner rolls and 2,597 cardboard boxes for delivering meals.

A dedicated army of volunteers is behind the operation. Jane Reed of Stillwater, who spent two long days deboning more than 150 turkeys, was among them.

"Last year I coordinated routes for the drivers," said Reed, standing in the kitchen over yet another browned turkey.

"That's when it hit me, the volume of need out there. It really opened my eyes."

Patti and Eric Olson of Stillwater helped coordinate the operation's expansion from Wisconsin into Minnesota. Families served by Unseen Angels are nominated by a friend or someone in the community, so Patti Olson spent the fall recruiting families through local schools, nonprofits and her church.

"Kids are hit the hardest, so we want to reach them," she said.

Unseen Angels prepared meals, or the raw materials for meals, for several area churches who have programs for parishioners, Olson said. And for the first time this year, it is coordinating with four Stillwater-area nonprofits to serve their clients as well.

One is Valley Outreach, which provides food, clothes and emergency services to folks in need. For years it ran its own Thanksgiving program but decided to join forces with Unseen Angels.

"There is something powerful at work here," said Christine Tubbs, executive director of Valley Outreach. "We saw that Tracy had momentum. We wanted to partner with her. She's certainly not afraid to take chances."

Turner, for example, offers meals with no questions asked. And she has no qualms about approving requests from folks hundreds of miles away. When a caller from Michigan asked for a hot meal, she put out an alert on Facebook and on her e-mail list to find someone driving to Michigan on Thanksgiving Day. Within a half-hour, she found her driver. And he's not the only one transporting Thanksgiving meals across state lines.

That driver, and about 700 others, will begin lining up at the Camp St. Croix parking lot Thanksgiving Day. Each will receive directions to the homes of three families and orders to deliver the meals between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. The drivers won't know the families. They aren't expected to stay. Their job is to drop off the meal and drive -- or fly -- away.

"People think I had some kind of master plan for this," Turner said. "I think it was just meant to be."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511