On Thursday, Nov. 28, families around the country will sit down to a Thanksgiving meal.
But a few people have chosen to do a little extra that day by sharing fellowship with others, even people they’ve never met. These people give of their time and talents to put on Thanksgiving Day meals at churches and community centers. These meals are completely volunteer-run and are open to everyone for free.
Carrie Brownlee coordinates the community Thanksgiving meal at the First United Methodist Church in Fairfield, which will be hosting its 15th Thanksgiving meal. Though the Methodist Church takes the lead on the meal, it receives help from other churches. First Christian Church helps with the rolls. The Lutheran Church is responsible for the dressing. The Knights of Columbus and St. Mary Catholic Church help with the pies. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donates money used to purchase mashed potatoes, gravy and green beans. Fairfield Hy-Vee donates the turkeys.
“The meal is free, and we don’t ask for any donations,” Brownlee said. “The meal is for anyone who wants companionship so they don’t have to eat alone, or even for people who just don’t want to do dishes that day.”
Fairfield’s meal will be from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the basement of the church. Brownlee said the church expects at least 300 people. In addition to hosting a meal in the basement, the church offers carry outs and delivery to shut-ins.
“We’re working with the hospital to provide meals for their patients,” Brownlee said.
Brownlee said attendance at the meal has doubled since the very first year. Now the church is preparing about 350 pounds of turkey, more than 1 pound for each person.
“We could probably feed 400-450 people if we had to,” she said. “We encourage people to eat as much as they want.”
One of the surprising things about the meal is that the First United Methodist Church is able to put it on without even having to fundraise for it. Brownlee said the church’s missions group provides some of the money, which complement the donations from the other churches.
Brownlee is at the church for much of the day both Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday, she and other volunteers cook the turkeys. She returns the next morning to warm the turkeys and coordinates the side dishes, like making sure the mashed potatoes and gravy are ready and that the volunteers know what they will be doing that day.
Those who wish to help can come to the church at noon Wednesday, at 9:30 a.m. Thursday to get the food ready or closer to 10:30-11 a.m. to help serve the food. Those who wish to help deliver meals can come at 10:30 a.m. Brownlee said she’ll have no problems finding a job for anyone who wishes to volunteer.
Trash and Treasures
The family of Claude and Lorelee Brown has helped at the Thanksgiving meal in some capacity every year. Claude, his son Craig from Cedar Rapids and daughter Kimberly Phillips from Des Moines, deliver the meals, while other members of the family staff a charity event occurring simultaneously to the dinner in the basement of the First United Methodist Church. The Browns’ daughter Angie Lamb runs “Trash and Treasures,” an annual event that raises money for the United Methodist Women for missions. It begins with a two day sale on the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving, which this year was Nov. 22-23.
The items sold are donated by local people and organizations. Typical items are plates, glasses, tupperware, candles, kitchenware, holiday decorations, books and much more. What is not sold before Thanksgiving is left out for free during the church’s Thanksgiving Day meal. Lamb spoke about one woman who came to the meal, and couldn’t believe the church was giving away these items. It brought tears to her eyes, because for the first time, she would have gifts to give to her grandchildren on Christmas.
Whatever items remain after Thanksgiving are given to the Bargain Box in Fairfield and the Hope House in Ottumwa.
Why do Lamb and her family help people in this way every Thanksgiving?
“I feel that in helping bless other people, so too are we blessed,” Lamb said. “Instead of asking, ‘what can you do for me?’ we are asking what we can do for others. And if you help others, God will provide.”
Lamb said the church has hosted “Trash and Treasures” for at least 25 years. Lamb said it was started by the generation before her. One year, the church didn’t do it. Lamb told herself she couldn’t let that happen again, so for the past 18 years, she has taken charge of it.
“It’s a good bridge for the generations, because it gets all ages working together,” Lamb said.
Lamb said she’s proud her whole family gets involved in volunteering on Thanksgiving Day. While her mother is helping her at “Trash and Treasures,” her father, brother and sister are delivering food. Even the grandkids get in on the act, too, helping serve the meal. When the family is out doing deliveries, they remember the people who receive food on Thanksgiving, and visit them again just before Christmas to sing carols. Lamb said it’s a good opportunity to let people feel they are not alone.
“People need food for their bodies, but what they really want is food for their soul,” she said.
Kathy Horn, president of United Methodist Women, said the organization was also raising money during “Trash and Treasures” by selling cookies and pies. That money, along with a donation from Fairfield Kiwanis, went toward purchasing a water heater at the Emergency Youth Shelter in Agency. What they don’t sell will be donated to the “Come to Supper” meal at the Lutheran Church in Fairfield.
Phil Coffin, clerk of the missions committee at the Salem Friends Church, is one of the volunteers who help with that church’s Thanksgiving Day meal. That lunch runs from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“It’s got all the trimmings of a turkey dinner down to the piece of pie,” Coffin said. “There’s no cost whatsoever, and we don’t ask for donations. Everyone is invited to come and eat.”
Coffin added that the church delivers to people who cannot pick up the meal.
“Even if you’ve already eaten, you’re still welcome to come and hang out. It’s a community event,” Coffin said.
The Friends Church does not need to fundraise for the event because Hy-Vee donates the turkeys (already cooked), and members of the congregation supply side dishes from their home kitchens, side dishes such as mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, buttered corn, and macaroni and cheese. The Fellowship Cup lets the church members shop its shelves. One lady bakes a dozen pies for the meal. The church hopes to serve about 100 people.
Coffin said he and his family spend the day at the church, helping set up, serve and wash dishes.
“A lot of people who come don’t have anybody to spend Thanksgiving with,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for us to sit down with them and chew the fat. When you think about Thanksgiving, it’s not so much about the food as it is the fellowship.”
The driving force behind Salem’s Thanksgiving meal has been May Swarm. Swarm is not a “cradle Quaker,” though she has been going to the church for the past 20 years. She said the Thanksgiving meal is in its third year, after it was started in 2016, continued in 2017, and skipped in 2018. The church didn’t do one last year because the members were busy with a dinner theater, but Swarm hopes the church can do a Thanksgiving meal every year from now on.
“We started this because we know that there are people in Mt. Pleasant and Salem who don’t have a place to go for Thanksgiving, who don’t cook their own meal, don’t have family around or can’t afford it. We know the meal in Mt. Pleasant is very well attended, so we thought we’d do one for people in our little corner of the state, too.”
Swarm said about eight to 10 people gather at the church the day before Thanksgiving to prepare, and then on the holiday itself, a few more than that come in to help. She said some of the volunteers bring their relatives and turn the event into their family Thanksgiving meal.
“It’s not just for people who don’t have anywhere to go,” Swarm said. “Three families in our church have opted to have their Thanksgiving meal here. It’s a nice way to teach your children the blessing of serving others.”
Swarm said the main thing that motivates her is the desire to give everyone a little company on a day dedicated to giving thanks.
“Everybody is pumped about being thankful, but I think of someone who is sitting at home alone on Thanksgiving. We feel we can do something about that, and that’s how this meal started,” Swarm said.