By Kim Steele
Killeen Daily Herald
When Thanksgiving diners dig their forks and spoons into community-wide holiday meals today, most of their thoughts naturally will focus on the food.
Few will consider the many volunteers behind the scenes who organized the menu, prepared the food, decorated the tables, served the masses, washed the dishes and swept the floors.
But without these charitable armies of dedicated volunteers who donate their time, services, and even money, the free meals would be nonexistent.
Kelli Johnson was one of about 15 volunteers getting ready last week for the third annual Thanksgiving Day dinner at New Sunset Community Church in Killeen.
"We got the turkeys today, and they'll be distributed on Sunday and cooked Wednesday night," said Johnson, loading 10 frozen birds on a table in the church's kitchen. "It really got me excited when we picked up the turkeys at the store. I looked at those birds and said 'I can do this.' We're hoping we'll have a lot of people come to eat it."
Johnson, who has volunteered for the event the past two years, said she would cook two turkeys this year, as well as some of the dressing and other side dishes. A slate of volunteers will prepare about 40 pounds of dressing for this year's event, she said.
"Making the meal is a lot of work for the volunteers, but it's worth it," said Johnson. "We enjoy serving others, and those who have no family can eat with us and have fellowship with our church family on Thanksgiving Day."
The Rev. Ed Talley, who has been pastor at New Sunset for three years and started the Thanksgiving Day meal, said the church is expecting to feed about 150 people. The holiday menu features turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and pie.
"Nothing comes out of a box," said Talley. "It's all prepared off-site by volunteers and brought in. This is a labor of love for the volunteers because all this work takes time away from their families on Thanksgiving. But it's all about being Christ's hands and feet and serving people."
Salvation Army seeks volunteers
The Salvation Army in Killeen is hosting its annual Thanksgiving Day lunch at Rivers of Living Water Church.
For Christopher Bryant and his wife, Kelly, both lieutenants in the Salvation Army, it will be their first Thanksgiving meal in Killeen. The couple, who moved from Texas City in June to oversee the local agency, expects to serve about 500 people, including Meals on Wheels participants.
"The way the economy has been so bad, the need is really great this year," he said. "A lot of people think this meal is just for the homeless, but it's not only for them. Many families are on a budget, and one extra meal provided during the week will really help them."
Bryant said the Thanksgiving feast will consist of 20 to 25 turkeys, 100 cans each of green beans, corn and yams, at least 50 boxes of dressing, numerous dinner rolls and at least 15 pumpkin and pecan pies. Drinks will include tea, coffee and lemonade.
On Tuesday, Bryant said the organization received 20 donated turkeys after informing the community that the nonprofit was eight birds short of its normal menu goal.
About 30 volunteers - many from Faith Temple Church in Killeen - will arrive at 8 a.m. today to cook everything but the turkeys, which are prepared the night before at volunteers' homes.
The Salvation Army is still looking for more volunteers to help with a variety of chores today, from cooking to serving and clean-up. Volunteers can arrive at 8 a.m. today at the church and ask where they would be most needed for the event.
"I'm nervous about the meal, but I know we're up to it," said Bryant. "Any time you have a big event like this, there's a sense of worry, such as do we have enough food and will we have enough volunteers. But God is in control and he will provide."
Tracy Carney of Belton found herself drafted to cook blueberry and peach cobblers by her daughter, Jessica Carney, a case manager at Project Future. The agency, which provides transition assistance for foster children 16 to 25 years old, hosted an early Thanksgiving dinner in mid-November for about 100 clients.
Tracy Carney said it took about an hour to make the two pies the night before the event. Since she has never made a large batch of dressing, she bought enough from a grocery store to feed the entire group. Tracey Carney said she agreed to help out because she thought it would be fun and meaningful.
"These kids are deserving of this and they really do appreciate it," she said. "And the staff are big-hearted people who love their clients. I thought helping out would be a good way to give something back to all of them. I would definitely do it again. It was a fun atmosphere and it meant a lot to me."
Project Future coordinator Kami Diaz said the full Thanksgiving dinner included a ham, 300 pieces of fried chicken from Walmart in Harker Heights, dressing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans, homemade macaroni and cheese and a host of cobblers and pies. Staffers, volunteers and interns prepared most of the menu.
Diaz said about 15 staffers, volunteers and interns met at the Harker Heights Activities Center in the late afternoon to decorate tables, place ice in cups, heat side dishes and greet clients and their children.
"This is a lot of work, but everyone has a heart for this population and they're into it 100 percent," said Diaz. "Everyone gives a good chunk of their time, and they're overworked and exhausted at the end of the day. But they do it because these folks don't have places to go or parents to call during the holidays."
Contact Kim Steele at email@example.com or (254) 501-7567.
Need a place to eat?
Here are some community-wide Thanksgiving meals being served today:
New Sunset Community Church, 814 W. Avenue C, Killeen: noon to 3 p.m.
Rivers of Living Water Church, 420 N. Gray St., Killeen: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Bread of Life Ministries, 100 Ruby Road, Harker Heights: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
True Light House House of Prayer, 200 N. Gray St., Killeen: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.