WAPAKONETA — The first volunteers arrived at 4 a.m. Thursday at the St. Joseph Parish Life Center to begin the process necessary to provide more than 500 Wapakoneta area residents with free Thanksgiving dinners.
Other volunteers arrived throughout the morning and their smiles reflected the joy each got from helping serve a communal meal and experiencing the feeling of family that accompanies the annual event.
The Wapakoneta Community Thanksgiving Dinner committee for the past six years has staged the free dinner, taking over after a brief hiatus the annual event first held in 2005 by Wapak resident Les Chiles and the local American Legion post.
Committee member Rachel Barber said the dinners in 2020 and 2021 were limited to carry-out meals only, due to the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. This year the parish hall was brimming with activity as in-person dining returned.
“We just want to emphasize there is no wrong reason for anyone to come to this dinner,” Barber said as she greeted visitors. “Don’t feel like cooking or don’t want to be alone? Then come to the dinner,” she said. “Or just come to enjoy the feeling of community.”
Deb Zwez, another committee member, said volunteers for the event represent a cross-section of the Wapakoneta community. She said John-William Davis, owner of J Marie’s restaurant in downtown Wapak, and Tom Vehorn are the “chief chefs” for the event, overseeing the menu and ordering the necessary foods.
Williams laughed at the notion that he plays a key role in the annual dinner.
“The volunteers are the glue to this event,” he said. “I’m just glad to help out. The community supports our restaurant heavily and we are happy to give back.”
Turkeys — 36 of them this year — were tossed into the ovens at the parish center at 4 a.m. Thanksgiving morning. Due to a shortage of dark turkey meat, ham was added as a supplement to this year’s meal. Mashed potatoes, stuffing and green beans rounded out the menu.
And pie. Oh the pies. Most baked locally (others with a little help from Marie Callender) they filled a table at the rear of the parish hall. Bakers primarily represented parishioners from First English Lutheran Church, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Buckland United Church of Christ and Trinity Lutheran Church.
Davis said the first meals to go out the door each year, even before the dinner officials opens its doors, are earmarked for the Wapakoneta fire and police departments, the Auglaize County Sheriff’s office and other first responders.
“We want them to be fed early in case they have to respond to an emergency in the community,” Davis said.
Wapakoneta residents Ken and Kathy Dirksen have been coming to the community Thanksgiving dinner for a decade now. This year they were joined Thursday by Donald Thitoff, whose wife is in a nursing home.
“It’s a nice community feeling,” Kathy Dirksen said.
“I come for the food … and the atmosphere,” Thitoff added.