BEFORE Jack Turesky sits down with his family for Thanksgiving Day dinner, he will carve 200 turkeys, chat with 1,500 people, and give his gravy-spattered khakis a much-needed tumble in the washer.
Every Thanksgiving for the past 12 years, the insurance executive from Andover, Mass., has volunteered to serve food at Boston's Pine Street Inn, a shelter for men.
``I absolutely, unconditionally love doing this,'' he says. ``Helping other people is what this holiday is all about.''
Across the country, a sense of charity and volunteerism is as prevalent on Thanksgiving as protruding waistlines and pumpkin pie. It may be America's single most benevolent day.
While no one knows how many Americans donate time on turkey day, some advocacy groups estimate their number in excess of 15 million. Thanksgiving brings out the charitable spirit, they say, because it is nondenominational and its traditions are rooted in sharing. ``In my experience, Thanksgiving has a higher volume of volunteers than any other day, even Christmas,'' says Fred Karnas of the National Coalition for the Homeless. ``Shelters are always deluged with calls.''
In fact, community organizers from Maine to Malibu agree that Thanksgiving volunteerism is on the increase. In recent years, they say, the turnout has been so overwhelming that they have had to turn away some would-be benefactors for lack of potatoes to peel.
But don't expect to find many idle volunteers Thanksgiving Day. As the supply of service has expanded, so has the demand.
The power of good intentions will be evident in Chicago, where 60 volunteers from the Council on Aging will don black ties and serve Thanksgiving dinner to 600 elderly people aboard the luxury cruise liner ``Odyssey.''
In California, United Airlines is offering round-trip shuttle fares between San Francisco and Los Angeles on Thanksgiving for $9.97. Proceeds will be donated to charities supporting the homeless.
Paying back what he calls his ``debt of friendship'' to America and the people of Anaheim, Calif., restaurant owner Frank Garcia, a Mexican immigrant, will feed 10,000 needy people at the site of his restaurant, Casa Garcia.
Out in the state's vegetable fields and citrus groves, volunteers from the Friends of Immigrant Workers will deliver baskets of chicken, corn, beans, bread, and soft drinks to California laborers.
Pie will be the main item on the menu at the Hosea Williams Feed the Hungry Dinner in Atlanta. Some 38,000 people are expected to turn out to sample the pumpkin delight - along with investigators from the Guiness Book of World Records. They will be on hand to verify what this fete's 7,000 volunteers hope will be a new world record: the largest sit-down dinner in history.
Eating isn't all that will be going on. The Cellular One telephone company will provide 15,000 free long-distance phone calls to anywhere in the world for poorer residents of Memphis.
In a downtrodden Cleveland neighborhood, Thanksgiving will offer a chance for Arab-American shopkeepers to ease tensions with their predominantly African-American customers. They will donate 1,000 turkeys to residents who cannot otherwise afford them.
In oil country, Veola and the Rev. Willie Malone of Houston will continue a two-year-old tradition begun after they won $10,000 in a bank contest: renting a trailer-mounted wood smoker and buying 500 birds for the less fortunate.
Despite all the Thanksgiving altruism, some charity officials grouse that too many of those who roll up their sleeves tomorrow will not extend their service through the rest of the year.
``That bothers me a little bit,'' says Alan Chambers of City Cares of America, a volunteer organization based in Washington. ``Obviously these volunteers recognize the need, but they only answer it once a year. These hungry people are not just hungry during the holidays.''
Still, Mr. Chambers asserts that some help is better than none, and that the lure of Thanksgiving has helped City Cares to recruit and train more than 30,000 volunteers nationwide to work year-round in their communities.
While total contributions to charity fell last year, Americans donated 19 billion hours to good causes. Some 89 million Americans volunteered an average of 4.2 hours each week, according to the Independent Sector in Washington. The total cash value of this service: $182 billion.
At the Pine Street Inn, the only juicy figure will be the golden turkey at the head of the buffet table. As Boston's homeless shake off the cold, Turesky will take his station wearing an apron, rubber gloves, a paper chef's hat, and a generous smile. ``I'm just happy that they let me play a part,'' Turesky says. ``At Pine Street, I get back far more than I give.''