On Thanksgiving Eve in 2010, Ken Ruff encountered a young military couple struggling to pay for their holiday meal at the grocery store. No one who has served our country should ever be in that position, he thought fiercely — and took action! Here, Ken shares his inspiring story of how he helped create a program that provides meals for military families and ensures the heroes who serve our country — and their loved ones — have a joyful holiday feast.
How the heartwarming mission got started
In 2010, Ken Ruff and his wife had just driven from Chicago to spend Thanksgiving with family in Utica, New York, when he made a quick stop at a grocery store. In front of him in the checkout line was a young couple, with a small child and the husband was wearing a military uniform. As he waited, Ken noticed they had just a few groceries: a small portion of turkey, a loaf of bread and cranberry sauce. The total came to just $12, yet they didn’t have enough to pay the bill.
“I was shocked and upset,” Ken tells Woman’s World. “No one who serves our country should struggle to provide Thanksgiving dinner!”
As the couple discussed what to put back, Ken interrupted and told them he was going to treat them to the groceries. “No, no, we don’t really need that,” they argued. But Ken insisted.
The couple thanked him profusely and asked if there was some way that they could pay him back. “No, it’s my honor!” Ken replied. “We really appreciate your service.”
Recalling that day, Ken truly believes he was meant to be at that store and meet that couple. “It was like God hit me in the head and woke me up to the struggles of our military families,” he says. “I decided I was going to find a way to help more military families enjoy a holiday meal.”
Meals for military families
Ken wanted to start right away, but he had just a month to organize something for Christmas. So, he spoke to his employer at the time, Beam Suntory, explained his idea and asked if they could help him out. His boss agreed. With limited time, Ken decided to focus on a single military base that first year: Fort Hood at Killeen, Texas.
With the help of sponsors and donors, volunteers served 500 holiday meals to grateful military families that December.
“Everything just fell into place. It was so gratifying,” Ken shares.
The next couple of years, Ken added on a few other military locations, providing free meals to families at Thanksgiving and Christmas. But he longed to help even more families and to do that, he recognized he would need help.
A longtime supporter of Operation Homefront, a national nonprofit headquartered in San Antonio and Arlington, Virginia, that provides financial assistance and other support to military families, Ken reached out to the organization. They loved the idea and in his fourth year, Operation Homefront took over the growing project, calling it Holiday Meals for Military Families.
More than 150,000 meals served!
Every year, from November to mid-December, Operation Homefront hosts about 250 Holiday Meals for Military Families events around the country, providing about 15,000 meals, for a total of more than 150,000 served to date.
Though Ken has handed over the reins, his heart remains committed. Now living in Guilford, Connecticut, he usually attends a distribution event in New England every year.
Food, family and a Thanksgiving feast
At each event, families who live at or near a base receive bags with nonperishable items — like canned corn and cranberry sauce— and grocery gift cards to purchase fresh Thanksgiving meal items. Parents often come with their children, and sometimes Santa Claus appears with coloring books for the little ones.
Margi Kirst, chief revenue officer for Operation Homefront, hears many touching stories from grateful military people, like the wife who was facing her first Thanksgiving alone after her husband was deployed.
“Thanks to these groceries, we wives are all going to get together and have our own Friendsgiving,” the woman told Margi.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Kyle Ainslie, 32, calls the program a godsend. He and his wife, Miranda, and their son and daughter received help for several years.
“It helps provide that little extra…to help bring family together,” says Kyle, now stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.
“The stories you hear about financial hardship or how a family member is going to be away and the spouse doesn’t know what they will do for the holiday and how getting this meal makes a difference… the thank yous… it makes it all worthwhile,” says Ken. “And to know that they’re going to have a full meal, that they don’t have to go to the mess hall, that they can be with family and friends, kick back, and not have to worry about food — it means a lot.”
For more inspiring stories, keep reading…