It all started with a big snowstorm in the little town of New Ulm, Minn.
Jim Thomas and his family had prepared their usual Thanksgiving Day feast when the storm hit. They learned that friends of theirs wouldn’t be able to make the trip to visit their kids in northern Minnesota because of the road conditions.
Other friends were supposed to travel that day as well but were now stuck in New Ulm for the holiday. “We had a big turkey so we invited them in,” Jim said.
Days later, as they looked back on the delightful experience, they wondered how many people had been stranded or simply didn’t have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving. They thought about how many others they could have helped.
And that’s when it all began — The Community Friends Thanksgiving Meal.
At first glance, the warm festive church basement looks like a simple gathering of close friends and good food. Smiles, laughter, and warmth abound as large bowls of corn and mashed potatoes are passed from one person to the next.
You’ll see the wealthiest family in town sitting next to those living on a modest income. You’ll see groups that know each other and people who have just met. Often there are families that come “home” to grandma’s to celebrate but don’t have the space for such a large gathering.
Many are “empty nesters” that just want to get out and socialize with others. Sometimes the affluent families come just to support those less fortunate.
When Jim first thought up this community feast, the invite was spread by word of mouth. That first year a little more than 100 people showed up, many of them friends and family.
“I love to cook and I love the old family recipes,” Jim said. “That first year it was my wife, three kids and half a dozen friends that cooked everything from scratch.”
This meant squash, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, coleslaw, pumpkin pie, corn, cranberries and fall-off-the-bone juicy turkey. It was also that year that they decided to take meals to the dozen or so prison inmates at the county jail.
It was a welcome substitute for the frozen TV dinner that were scheduled to be served that day. Jim received a letter from the sister of one of the inmates praising them for what they had done.
The following year they began to reach out to churches and group homes, aiming to include as many as possible. That year they served more than 150 people with 90 percent of the work was still being done by Jim, his family and friends.
Jim decided from the start that the meal would be a free-will offering. He decided that if there were any money shortages, his family would cover the cost. He watched as people streamed in the door and made contributions.
Wealthy families would give generously. Others could only contribute a small fraction of what the meal had cost to prepare. In the 27 years that they have been organizing the event, they have never come up short.
The food is served family-style and not a buffet. It was important to Jim. Volunteer “servers” refill the bowls as everyone enjoys the meal.
“One of my goals and objectives was to have the focus be on community and family,” Jim aid. “We even offer rides to people that need them just so they can come and be a part the community.”
This year more than 1,000 people will enjoy the Community Friends Thanksgiving Meal. Most are served at the church, many are delivered by volunteers and some are taken to-go.
Everything is still cooked from scratch. It takes a lot of help to make this Thanksgiving meal happen. It began on Monday as volunteers came in to bake the squash and organize the week.
Today at 9 a.m., 35 turkeys were prepared, each about 22 pounds a piece. More helpers arrive later to peel carrots and potatoes to get things ready for the big day.
By 4:30 a.m. Thursday, volunteers will arrive to stuff the birds and put them in the ovens. At 11:30 a.m. the place will be packed.
Last year was the first year that Jim and his family did not run the event. They have moved from New Ulm, and others have stepped up to carry on the tradition.
Jim still helps by answering questions from the new organizers, and he provides guidance as needed. He said he’ll help anyone who wants to start a Community Friends Thanksgiving Meal.
“There are at least three other communities that have now started a similar tradition,” he said with pride. Now that’s a Happy Thanksgiving.
Freelance columnist Lori Allen Writes in this space once a month.