Nearly three decades ago, Paul Garelli was touched when he saw one of his neighbors, who was a single mom on a limited income, wrapping Christmas gifts for small children in her kitchen.

What struck Garellis as odd was that the woman's three children were home and present as their mother carefully wrapped each toy.

Curious, Garelli asked the woman what she was up to.

"She said she was wrapping gifts for families who didn't have any," remembered Garelli. "And that really touched my heart and soul."

Garelli, who had moved to the Thorndike area from his home state of Massachusetts in 1982 after accepting a position with Thorndike Large Print Books, said he was inspired by that act of kindness, especially since the person engaged in the act had very little herself.

Then Garelli thought if this one caring person can make a holiday happen for one family, he and some of his coworkers could do it for a few more local families in need.

"That first year we had presents and dinners for 80 families," said Garelli.

That was the beginning of the local nonprofit organization People for People, which has helped struggling local families obtain the holiday experience of sharing Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with all the fixings for 29 years.

Since it's humble start — Garelli said in the beginning the meal boxes and toys the group used to collect for children would be organized inside his garage — the seasonal nonprofit has grown in terms of the number of volunteers and donations it receives for its cause every year.

For the past seven years, the organization has joined forces with Waldo Community Actions Partners so the kindness can go a little bit further. The main focus is no longer on toys and gifts, but on holiday meals.

The local groups have also enlisted the help of the coalition Neighbor for Neighbor, which maintains a database to avoid duplication of services by various organizations that also help the needy, such as Searsport Lions and Belfast Rotary Clubs.

Last year, Garelli said volunteers came together early one December morning and filled 1,162 Christmas dinner boxes. This year, Garelli and WCAP Community Projects Manager Tabitha Lowe said that number could swell as high as 1,300 when between 250 and 300 volunteers will return to the Belfast Armory on Route 1 Saturday, Dec. 21 to assemble and distribute the meal boxes again this year.

For Thanksgiving 2013, Lowe said volunteers put together more than 840 meal boxes for families throughout Waldo County.

From the local grocers like Swan Lake Grocery in Swanville and Tozier's Family Market in Searsport and the local farmers who contribute food from their fall harvests to the people who make cash donations and the volunteers who make each meal box, Lowe said it takes a lot of hands to make each meal come together.

"Each box is touched by a lot of people," said Lowe.

Garelli and Lowe say a lot of the volunteers are not new faces — many have come back year after year and of those volunteers, there are several who were either past recipients or families who will receive a meal box this year.

And Lowe said there is always room for more.

"Just show up at the armory at 6 a.m., ready to go," she said.

Lowe, who has helped with the meal project since she came on board with WCAP four years ago, said she was a little intimidated when her organization called upon her to take the lead on the massive undertaking.

"They said 'don't worry, they'll show up,' and they all did," remembered Lowe. "Everyone just really loves to do it. People bring their kids every year, and the kids do it."

"It's a great way to introduce families to the value of giving, and charity," said Garelli.

Lowe experienced that herself, she said, when she was a peer leader at Belfast Area High School in 2004. She traveled on a WCAP bus to Garelli's home in Knox, and on the way she met an elderly woman who told her stories from the past about her children.

"It was an awesome experience, it was really fun," she said.

In addition to the assembly-line-style meal box building effort, there are also many volunteers from the Searsport and Belfast Rotary Clubs and the local fire departments who deliver the boxes right to the recipients' doorsteps, a touch that Garelli said is important because it gives the entire undertaking a personal, neighborly feel.

That means a lot to the folks who receive the boxes, Lowe said, particularly the elderly shut-ins who don't get out much anymore.

"It's that five to 10 minutes of human interaction, I think they look forward to that more than the food most of the time," said Lowe.

In a matter of two or three hours, the meal boxes are done, sealed and shipped out the door.

"By noon it all disappears," said Lowe of the armory. "It's like we were never there."

The cost of the meal box projects is about $57,000 for this year, which Garelli said was no small amount of money, but experience tells him not to worry.

"Somehow at the end of the project it always comes in," he said, noting there are several individual donors and businesses who have supported People for People for more than 25 years.

By the end of this year the organization will have raised nearly $800,000 since its inception almost 30 years ago, and Garelli said the beauty of a locally based charity with little or no overhead expenses means 100 percent of the money goes toward helping families in need.

"In my travels I've seen so many desperate sights," he said.

On one occasion many years ago, he delivered a meal to a home in Monroe. After he was invited inside the modest home, he was greeted by "three kids and three goats."

But the thing that has struck Garelli most about his time at the helm of People for People is that no matter how much the need still exists in Waldo County, there have always been enough volunteers and donations to meet it.

Garelli said that means more families will have holiday dinners to share together, all of whom might not otherwise have the resources to provide it for themselves.

"That's something I think is important about the project too, is that it creates that experience, and creates those memories for the families," said Garelli. "… At the heart of this story is basic kindness."

Anyone interested in helping People for People with a cash donation may mail checks, payable to People for People, to either PO Box 372, Belfast, ME 04915 or to PO Box 1, Thorndike, ME 04986. Those who wish to volunteer are invited to come to the Belfast Armory at 6 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 21 to assist with boxing the meals, or call 338-4944 for more information.