Kenny Friesner walked the dining hall inside the Salvation Army Thursday morning feeling right at home.
He smiled at Judy, talked a bit with Sarah and had his regular place at the Thanksgiving table already staked out. And by 10:30 a.m., Friesner had spent hours helping out, wiping down tables and opening boxes and boxes of pies.
Just like he does every fourth Thursday in November.
“I have nowhere else to go,” said Friesner, 72, who lost his brother eight years ago. “I classify this place as my family.”
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Ask anyone here, Thanksgiving just isn’t the same without Kenny. Maybe it’s because he’s been coming here — to volunteer and then eat — for the past 37 years. He typically arrives decked out in Chiefs’ gear, though there was that time he had on Green Bay Packer green, but nobody wants to talk about that.
“I saw Kenny walk in this morning and knew we were ready to start,” said Major David Harvey, Divisional Secretary for The Salvation Army.
Same can be said for many regulars who make each Thanksgiving meal possible at the 101 W. Linwood location. Families make it a tradition, blocking out several hours year to help make sure those less fortunate, and many who are homeless, have a warm meal.
This year alone, more than 350 volunteers pitched in. Organizers planned to serve 400 to 600 at the center and hoped to deliver 700 to 800 meals to homes across Kansas City.
“We almost can’t keep volunteers away,” said Sarah DiMaso, divisional volunteer organizer for The Salvation Army in Kansas and Western Missouri. “They scramble for even the least of jobs, restroom monitor, hand sanitizer and trash puller. ... They just don’t want to miss it.”
For some, like Kenny, their spot in the rotation is a given. Organizers actually pencil in his name as early as July. And not just for Thanksgiving.
“Even today, he said, ‘You have me signed up for Christmas, right?’” DiMaso said.
Other volunteers are just like Friesner. They come every year, feel like these people working alongside them are family, and always like to help out in both November and December.
“It was painful as a kid,” said John Bosshard of Gardner. “We had to do the Salvation Army before we did Christmas. At 11 years old, it taught me what giving was. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now.”
The Bosshard family has been coming each Thanksgiving and Christmas for nearly four decades.
“My husband did it,” said Judy Bosshard of Overland Park. John’s mother. “He wanted to do something more than sitting at home opening gifts. We came and loved it.”
By a little after 11 a.m., when the meal was supposed to begin, nearly every table was full. Volunteers worked the room, pouring drinks, delivering plates of food to each table and talking with the people thankful for a holiday meal.
And the Bosshard family and two tables of other volunteers packed up meals for deliveries across the city.
By then, Friesner’s work was long done and he was sitting down for his meal at his usual spot — last table by the wall, far end seat in the back.
It’s the same spot he plans to be in come Christmas when he’ll be back at the Salvation Army with people he considers family.