Nobody should be alone or go hungry on Thanksgiving Day.
That simple statement is the driving force that has kept the Spirit of Oakdale alive and well for going on two decades and has brought committee members back together again this year to feed the masses.
What started initially as an idea to gather a few people together to share a holiday meal if they had nowhere else to go, no family in the area, has grown to include families, dignitaries and community residents.
Involved from the very beginning, local residents Mickey Peabody and Vickie Thompson spearhead the effort, with a lot of help from their friends.
When the first dinner was hosted, back in 1994, it was when Thompson was running Vickie T’s restaurant where Bacchi’s now stands near the H-B on East F Street. Peabody, meanwhile, was running for office at the time and when learning that Vickie T’s was going to be closed for the holiday, thought that a community dinner might be a nice touch.
“It was a good publicity move,” Peabody said, chuckling.
But it became a way to fill a need in the community, one that has not diminished.
“The first year, we had more volunteers than we had people there to eat” the food prepared for the day, Peabody said. “But we knew there was a need. You do it one year, you do it for two years, then it starts to grow and all of a sudden, it’s years later and you’re still doing it.”
And grow it has, up to the point of preparing enough food for an estimated 1,200 people this year.
Oakdale’s Gene Bianchi Community Center at 110 So. Second will serve as the host site for this year’s Thanksgiving meal on Thursday, Nov. 24 with serving from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
There are no specific ‘seating’ times, just come when you want and stay as long as you please.
Along with the hot, freshly prepared holiday meal, those attending can also receive a bag of groceries to take home, there will be games and activities for youngsters, with each child also getting a toy to take home with them.
No one goes away hungry, as the buffet style service is open ended and you can go back for seconds.
“We do get a lot of seniors and people who don’t want to be alone,” said Peabody. “If you don’t have a family, make this your family.”
With the economy still struggling and people having a hard time making ends meet, organizers have seen an upswing in families attending the meal over the past few years. Volunteers typically also take time during the event to sit down and share the meal with their own families.
“You don’t just do turkey for two people or one person,” noted Peabody.
Those that may not have anywhere to go or have difficulty getting out to the meal can also have it home-delivered, with the CAPS, Citizens Auxiliary Police Services, members handling the delivery of meals on Thanksgiving Day.
Peabody said more than 100 meals are typically delivered, and the CAPS members are good about getting names of shut-ins throughout the year, to make sure they aren’t forgotten at holiday time.
A veteran working her 18th Spirit of Oakdale Thanksgiving Dinner, Thompson coordinates the meal preparation, which ranges from scheduling the roasting of the turkeys to the peeling of the potatoes.
“We go through about 90 turkeys, 250 pounds of potatoes, about 80 pounds of salad mix,” Thompson explained. “Also, 150 pounds of green beans, 60 pounds of margarine, 20 pounds of bacon for the green beans and probably 30 to 40 gallons of gravy that we do.”
Thompson said she is planning for 1,200 at this year’s dinner and her kitchen crew has stayed basically the same over the years.
“For safety reasons, I try to keep the people in the kitchen that know what they’re doing,” she said.
Local veterinarian Dr. Cal Cadmus and his family keep things moving on schedule in the kitchen and Thompson also said donations from Medlen’s House of Beef and Bacchi’s have proven extremely helpful in the past, in addition to an Oakdale potato broker that always donates a portion of the potatoes.
Letters seeking donations go out to past donors around the first of September, so the food for the dinner starts getting situated well in advance of actually having to cook it.
Other major partners in the effort include the local schools, with canned food drives at most of the school sites helping stock the bags of food items taken home by attendees. Helping collect, sort and store the canned goods are local pastor Rev. Henry Raven and local resident Mark McLean.
Thompson said there are so many people involved in making the Spirit of Oakdale run smoothly, it operates now like a well-oiled machine.
The one big question each year, she said, is how many turkeys she will have.
“I can’t tell you if I have 40 or 100, I won’t know that until three or four days before Thanksgiving,” she explained.
If she finds herself running far short of what she needs, Thompson goes to a familiar source, SaveMart, which has supported the Spirit of Oakdale effort for years.
“I go to SaveMart and have a meltdown,” she said, laughing over her actions when she finds herself far short of turkey requirements. “They’ve been very good to us and they donate every year.”
Along with donating quite a few turkeys, SaveMart also has sold items to the committee at cost and helped in other ways, such as hosting a food drive at the store.
The Center for Human Services based in Modesto brings a crew to work the craft tables and help provide activities for children, while the local Family Support Network assists by making an annual trip to the regional Second Harvest Food Bank to get food.
“We post flyers for them and help distribute information,” Family Support Network Executive Director Karen O’Bannon said of being involved in the community Thanksgiving. “We’ve been part of it from the beginning. My husband gets there at 6:30 a.m. to plug in the coffee and start peeling the potatoes.”
O’Bannon said the Oakdale Womens Club made a recent donation of food items, with many local service clubs and organizations, in addition to individuals, contributing to make sure the day is a success.
She will also take close to $250 to Second Harvest, where she can buy food for 19 cents a pound.
“We get whatever they have,” O’Bannon said.
The money will buy more than 1,300 pounds of food, all of which will go to help local needy families.
“It’s just a good thing,” Peabody added of the community dinner, noting that the day is truly a blessing for all involved. “It’s one heck of a meal.”
Rather than be at home, overeating, she said this gives people a chance to give back and be of service to those in need.
Thompson was quick to point out that they are well-staffed with volunteers and don’t need any more workers, but can always use help in the form of monetary donations, turkey, canned goods and toys.
“We’re game for that,” she said.
Again, there are no income eligibility or other requirements to meet for the dinner; any and all residents are welcome to attend.
The benefits also reach further than the stomach, said Thompson, relating the story of one woman, who contracted polio on Thanksgiving when she was a child and didn’t like the holiday, now, in her wheelchair, coming to the community center every year to be a part of the festive gathering.
“She’s there the whole day and she loves it,” Thompson said. “You look around the room and we could have the poorest of the poor, the richest of the rich there. I don’t care who you are, come and have a meal with us.
“I don’t want people to sit home alone.”