JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
Durangoans were eager to give on Thanksgiving.
More than 200 volunteers signed up to wash pots, slice pie, stir gravy and carry dinner trays for the mobility-impaired at the Community Thanksgiving Dinner at the La Plata County Fairgrounds.
Into its 27th year, the event is so well-organized that name tags were waiting for volunteers at the reception area of the dining hall. Their names were divided by hourly shift.
Many volunteers had signed up in early October, said Mary Ralph, the coordinator of the meal and a pastoral associate at St. Columba Catholic Church.
Volunteering is a family tradition for many, who will offer the services of their out-of-town guests, too. A grandmother from Atlanta and an uncle from Los Angeles were among the helpers.
“Volunteers will call me at St. Columba: ‘I want to sign up my family of 5,’” Ralph said.
If they’re families with young children, she and Gordon Clouser, the volunteer coordinator, will give them less hazardous tasks, keeping them away from the boiling water and coffee machines.
On Thursday, volunteers also wandered in off the street, wanting to be useful on the holiday.
“Family is all out of town. I came here to do something,” said a man in a baseball cap.
A woman with three young children took a break from their bicycle ride to see if they could pitch in, but organizers were running out of jobs by 11:30 a.m.
“Maybe the thing to do is to clean off some turkey bones, like eat,” said Kim Skinner, a greeter.
Skinner understands that Durango can feel like a lonely place, especially for new arrivals.
“I don’t have family here,” she said. “We all run here to escape from something.”
Skinner, who moved here about a year ago from Tucson, Ariz., is grateful for Durango’s slower, small-town pace.
“I like to read the Blotter in the newspaper – somebody yelling in the street, dog on the loose – that’s crime here,” she said.
For Thanksgiving, an ecumenical group of local churches organizes the holiday celebration. Local businesses such as Bread, Blimpie’s and Jean-Pierre donate the rolls and baked goods. McDonald’s supplies the orange drink.
Employees at Mercy Regional Medical Center cooked the turkeys. The hospital also donated 30 gallons of gravy.
Organizers planned to serve at least 700 meals at the fairgrounds and deliver another 100 meals to people in outlying areas. Leftovers are donated to Manna Soup Kitchen.
Schoolchildren created directional signs so people knew where to drop off their turkeys and desserts.
Diners ate on paper plates, but the dinnerware still managed to feel sentimental. Organizers laminated the dinner placemats to preserve the holiday designs made by schoolchildren. The newest place mats are 2 years old, but their messages are enduring.
One child wrote, “I am thankful for my cat because he is nice.”
Another child wrote on a placemat, “I am thankful for the Indians finding the pilgrims and helping them.”
In a sign of the times, the community dinner is now offering gluten-free and dairy-free pies.
This is a new tradition that has started spontaneously, Ralph said. The desserts are not donated in bulk but baked at home. Bakers are sensitive to people’s food issues, but Ralph also acknowledged that there was not a lot in the way of plant-based food.
“There’s a lot of butter and calories,” she said.
“Stuffing is the one vegetarian thing,” Ralph said. “(Plus) we have green beans and raw vegetables – carrots, celery sticks and pickles.”
Judy Hook was proud that her daughter, Tanya Milchen, made a pumpkin pie without cream or butter.
“It’s amazing what you can do with coconut milk,” Hook said.