Thanksgiving dinner at the Whiteaker Head Start Center on Nov. 27 started early for some. At 8:00 a.m. early arrivers were given gifts of warm clothing, sleeping bags, gloves, blankets, toiletries and various materials for creating shelters. Organizers also arranged rides to the event for those without transport.
The Whiteaker Community Dinners are 100 percent volunteer run. The WCD slogan is “Neighbors Helping Neighbors.” The idea behind the event is community coming together as one and eliminating divisions between donors, volunteers and guests.
From 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. guests dined together, some having their photos taken, their faces painted or even getting a massage. Local musicians played blues and other music throughout the day.
WCD organizers said they didn’t have a way of doing an official head count, but estimated that more than 2,000 people attended this year’s event. With seating for only 230 people, volunteers worked in teams announcing vacant chairs when guests finished eating and left to walk around the room to enjoy the other offerings.
Event coordinator and landscape architect Justin Lanphear said the all-inclusive event is for people without homes and people with homes who would otherwise spend Thanksgiving alone. “It’s multi-faceted in a really good way,” Lanphear said.
Retired Eugene resident Ron Pike said he was attending for the 26th time. “It’s just gotten better and more generous every year,” Pike said.
Aloma Murray, owner of the Free Photo Project said that her team of volunteers gives away more than 300 free print photos each year at the event. She said that people often have family they haven’t seen for years and want to send them a photo.
Murray gives them a free gift card, envelope and stamp. “This is our sixth year here,” Murray said. “We get to see kids getting older each year.”
Local businesses donated the food which was prepared by a legion of volunteers including individual chefs and cooks, local churches, the Lane Community College Culinary Arts and Hospitality programs and the Martin Luther King Jr. Culinary Arts Youth Service program.
As people left, they passed by tables in the hallway where free food was offered to take home, including cereals, soups, pumpkin pie, carrots, sodas and turkey dinner leftovers.
“This has been just awesome seeing everyone smiling and having a good time,” volunteer James Torrez said. Commenting on the rain outside, he added “it might be ugly outside, but it’s beautiful in here.”
Maralyn Gill attended the lunch, volunteering as a Spanish translator. She commented on how wonderful it was to see everyone treated equally. For thirty years she has been living in Belize where she owned her own restaurant and hosted free Thanksgiving dinners. “They’ve adopted all the hallmark holidays in Belize,” Gill said.
Volunteers from Guardian Event Security stood at the entrance directing people and answering questions. In fact, all the volunteers worked together to make the day as enjoyable as possible for everyone.
It was in 1974 that the seed for the community dinners was first planted. A single mother, who couldn’t raise enough money to provide a Thanksgiving dinner for her four children, went to the Sheriff’s Department for help. They enlisted the help of the local radio station and through anonymous donations her family celebration became a reality.
Four years later she and a group of neighbors hosted the first Whiteaker Thanksgiving Dinner. Approximately 60 people attended. The following year the number doubled and the next year it doubled again. For a few years after that there were no dinners, then in 1988 they started again.
By 1995 the number of attendees was up to 1,200 and in 1996 the WCD, a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, was formed. Ever since, the corporation and Whiteaker neighbors have joined together to make the Thanksgiving dinners bigger and better every year.