20 years in: the history of the John DeBella Turkey Drop

Radio hose John DiBella poses for a photo with Iron Chef Jose Garces at last year’s Turkey Drop.

When 102.9 WMGK-FM on-air personality John DeBella presents his 20th Annual titular Turkey Drop on Tuesday in front of the Kimmel Center on Broad Street, the longtime radio icon will again reveal Philadelphians in their best light: giving, even in times of personal and financial head-and-heartache.

Last year, in the face of the pandemic and unemployment, the John DeBella Turkey Drop — the largest, single day food gathering event in Philadelphia — raised over 12,000 turkeys for families in need. “No one should go hungry in America, in Philadelphia, anywhere, ever,” says DeBella.

How DeBella’s Turkey Drop actually started goes back even further than its 20-year-mark to when the radio personality was a morning fixture at 93.3 WMMR-FM.

“I saw an ad for a charity in the newspaper that claimed $20.00 could feed five people Thanksgiving dinner and thought that I could do better than that,” says DeBella. “I was still new at WMMR, and told listeners that I would be on the corner of 19th and Walnut on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, collecting turkeys from anyone who could donate, and that I would hand them over to City Team Ministry who then distributed the turkeys to those in need.”

After collecting nearly 100 turkeys that first Tuesday with little prep or prompting, DeBella stuck with it, moving, yearly, from 300 to 500 to 800, and then — after joining WMGK, and re-starting his self-named Turkey Drop in 2001 — hitting the magic number of 12,734 in 2020 within a three-hour window. “Even I was impressed by that number.”

Going back even further, however, DeBella confides that neither he nor his family were wealthy throughout his childhood. “My dad was a garbageman. He provided for us as best as he could —we never wanted for anything. Because of that, I could never understand anybody in this country needing to go hungry. The depths and breadth of hunger that exists in this country, still, makes no sense at all. We just have too much. There has got to be a way to do this better — ending hunger. And if it takes standing out in the cold, begging for turkeys on the street, begging for turkeys on the air for three solid weeks until that happens, that’s what I’m going to do.”

WMGK-FM on-air personality John DiBella Provided

Lest there is doubt in the motives of charity, DeBella confesses that his Turkey Drop is not promotional ratings grab for WMGK and Bala Cynwyd’s Beasley Media Group. “It’s not a ratings getter. I don’t think people are tuning in for a turkey tally of any sort. It just needs to be done. There are three things that mean the world to me: dealing with veterans and their needs, tending and caring for dogs, and helping to stop hunger any way I can.”

To those ends, each spring, DeBella sponsors an annual Dog-Walk in Green Lane Park, Montgomery County, for the area’s shelters (virtually run in 2020 and 2021, but live in 2022 after Mother’s Day), as well as a pre-summer annual Veterans Radiothon that benefits the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service Center. Since 2007, John DeBella has raised over $2 million for the VMC with nearly $160,000 arriving during the 2021 VMC drive. The reach and renown of DeBella’s Veterans Radiothon came in 2014 with an on-air donation of $10,000 from rocker Rod Stewart.

“This is another cause that means the world to me, and makes no sense as to why we don’t collect even more money — supporting the troops. Everyone says they want to support the troops, until they’re faced with doing it. So, to get $157,000-plus is an accomplishment. But we should be able to get more money for them. The need is great. We promise that we will take care of them as they have taken care of us, and we don’t do a third of what we should do.”

Though 2020’s pandemic Turkey Drop was the charity’s wildest success, DeBella knows that people must be conscious of distance, masks and vaxxes while stopping by the Kimmel or any of the ACME Markets around the Delaware Valley where, from 6 a.m.- 9 a.m. Tuesday, DeBella and his staff will accept frozen turkeys, “free turkey” coupons, gift cards, cash donations and checks, made payable to “City Team Philadelphia” (No food other than turkeys can be accepted. Go to www.wmgk.com for a list of participating ACMEs, as well as to make a secure, tax-deductible donation online).

“The goal for the annual Turkey Drop is to always beat the year previous, but, of course, we will take what we can get,” says DeBella. “We know it is going to be harder for people to give what with turkeys being more expensive. The newspaper may be dire, but farm reports that just came out tell us that a Thanksgiving dinner with turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, pie with whipped cream and bread, rolls and butter would cost the average family — to feed 10 people — $53 and change. I would love to be able to do that for four people in my house. So as bad as the news services are making it all seem, it is not all that bad. Turkeys are more expensive now than they were last year, but still, they are only around 21 bucks. That is not a lot to give. News stories are making it hard for me, so the challenge is having people get over that fear and make a donation or buy an extra turkey. I think we can do it.”

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