By Konstantine Fekos
Anyone with a big appetite and room for seconds this Thanksgiving can count themselves as part of the family. The Family & Community Christian Association, that is.
The public is welcome to attend the annual Thanksgiving Community Dinner on Thursday at the association headquarters, 378 Chestnut St., Meadville, where volunteers have no problem filling seats or stacking plates, and no one is turned away empty-bellied.
Dinner is served starting at noon for all who care to attend, and delivery orders are also being accepted.
“Normally, we get people who are alone for the holidays or who’ve made it an annual tradition,” said Judy Ventresca, FCCA executive director, but the event is for “anyone who wants to come is able to come,” she said.
A fresh, free, full-course meal may sound too good to be true, but try telling that to the several hundred people who turn out every year for a massive mouthful of the FCCA’s home cooking.
“We’ve had every classification from lawyers to doctors and everything in-between,” said Bill Foster, who co-chairs the dinner with Crawford County Commissioner Sherman Allen. “We’ve even had people from other countries here for missionary works.”
With more than 100 meals already requested, the FCCA is confident some 400 to 500 hungry mouths the event averages annually will be loosening their belts for another round.
“I always compare it to meals my grandmother used to make,” said Foster. “Nothing comes out of boxes. It’s all homemade.”
More than 30 turkeys are expected to grace the tables, surrounded with side dishes of sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, various green bean recipes and numerous desserts.
“It’s getting very expensive to do this dinner; the prices have gone up dramatically the last few years,” said Foster, whose coordination duties include leading the vast food quantity’s purchase and preparation. “But there’s a continuous interest from the whole county.”
While peeling 150 to 200 pounds of potatoes can prove a daunting task, Foster is thankful for plenty of volunteers who donate their time and energies to the generous cause.
“We have an excellent community response,” Ventresca said. “And thankfully, we always have enough food.”
FCCA administrators chalk up the event’s annual success to the Meadville community’s generosity.
“We’ve been doing this event for so long, things just happen,” Ventresca said. “People show up and drop off food or come in to help. Everyone knows the event is happening every year; it’s a given.”
As FCCA phones ring off the hook Thanksgiving week, few callers ask if the event is still on; while more reservations and delivery requests come in, some as early as September, said Ventresca.
The Thanksgiving dinner also benefits from countless community members who send in monetary donations, as well as local businesses like Malady’s Meat Market, Nutrition Inc., and Marquette Savings Bank, who have made several contributions, if not annual donations.
“The list just goes on and on,” said Foster.
“This is a function that fits in with our ideas of what we like to give back to the community,” said Steve Kightlinger, regional branch manager at Marquette Savings Bank, which already sent its yearly $1,000 donation to the dinner.
The FCCA also calls out to the area churches, who respond generously, said Ventresca.
Monetary donations alone don’t stuff turkeys, however. The dinner effort requires the helping hands of 100 or more volunteers who usually turn out every year to match the overwhelming attendance.
“One of the reasons we don’t turn down volunteers is that many of them need the food and want to give their time to earn it first,” said Foster. “As a general rule, volunteers just show up on their own and they’re welcome to eat with us.”
And ... ‘we deliver’
Volunteers can earn their bread and butter with charitable responsibilities that run the gamut from slicing turkey and peeling potatoes to setting up and cleaning off tables. For residents who may be homebound or can’t make the trip, the FCCA has sent volunteers to deliver dinners as far out as Erie YMCA, Titusville and the Pymatuning area.
“I’ve noticed deliveries are up this year,” said Foster, who estimates they’ll be making some 200 deliveries on Thanksgiving day. “That’s quite a task in itself, but the volunteers still love to do it.”
Volunteers covering a wide portion of Crawford County have greeted recipients in the past to deliver some good cheer as well as a full dinner, a feat Foster says often does more good than the food.
“We had one couple a few years ago get out and hand-deliver to a place that was snowed in,” Foster remarked.
Without inclement weather to deter a higher possible outcome, Ventresca believes attendance will be at least on par with years past and that turkey-lovers attending this year’s event can expect not only a bevy of food, but some good old-fashioned fun and fellowship.
“It’s a family-oriented atmosphere,” said Ventresca. “Some guests and volunteers will play the piano here and lead songs or sing with CDs.”
The Thanksgiving Community Dinner will be served starting at noon Thursday at the Family & Community Christian Association, 378 Chestnut St., Meadville. Sign-up sheets are available for volunteers and donors during FCCA’s regular hours, 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. today throughout Thursday. Food-based donations will be accepted through Thursday early afternoon. Pies and cakes are requested specifically. Monetary donations will be accepted through the end of the year.
n More information: Call association headquarters at (814) 337-4279.