By Ryan Richardson
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Hundreds of residents headed to area churches, shelters and community centers Thursday to have a slice of turkey, fresh potatoes, sweet desserts and time with friends and family.
Behind the scenes, volunteers worked, in some cases for days, to make that opportunity a reality.
At one of the churches, First United Methodist Church in Joplin, volunteers planned on serving the annual Thanksgiving Day dinner to at least 700.
Head cook Gayle Warren started the food preparation at 4:15 a.m. She said this is the best way that she could imagine spending Thanksgiving.
“There’s no other way to express the gratitude of the blessing of everyone coming through that door today,” Warren said. “This is our family. Thanksgiving should be about serving others, and that’s what we are doing here.”
The church is in downtown Joplin at 501 W. Fourth St., which provides a central location for people to convene.
“We are serving our community and giving them the opportunity to spend time with each other,” Warren said. “We get people from all over that come in today, people that don’t come here normally. Our location is different because of where we are located and how big we are. A lot of places don’t have the same opportunity that we do to serve the community.”
An industrial-style kitchen with several ovens, sinks and preparation stations opens up into a basketball court that was converted to a dining area for the day. Warren had been running around the kitchen to make sure that all of the food trays remained full with a wide variety of food.
“It’s crazy to stop and think about how much food is really going out today,” Warren said. “I had nearly 14 pounds of sweet potatoes prepped this morning, and those will be long gone by the time we finish up at 2.”
Nearby, Vanessa Vigneaux watched over nine volunteers in a room reserved for preparation of takeout orders. Working in assembly line fashion, the workers set up foam boxes for people who had placed orders.
Vigneaux has been a part of all 15 Thanksgiving dinners that the First United Methodist Church has organized. She pointed out how much the day’s activities have grown in that time.
“This went from a Bible study and small fellowship of maybe 50 people to 125 volunteers for today alone,” she said. “Five hundred people will come through here in some way or another today to join us. That’s what we want for the area. We want people, for whatever reason, to have a positive place to go today. Today is completely positive for the community, no question about it. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Before noon, Vigneaux already had sent volunteers to local stores to pick up more food because of the turnout.
“We’re going to be over what we expected,” she said. “That’s the best news of the day.”
All of the food that the church served Thursday was donated.
Mike Words, of Joplin, went to the church for the Thanksgiving festivities.
Words, who does not have family in the area, said he heard about the event via word of mouth.
“This kind of holiday is one that you want to know that you are around good people,” he said. “I feel like I’m blessed to be around good people, and it’s something that you can tell as you go around town today. People smile, wish each other a happy Thanksgiving, and seem genuine. But the people here, they are living it. They are going above and beyond to share Thanksgiving with each other.”
Elsewhere, the Salvation Army’s doors in Joplin opened early Thursday morning as nearly 200 volunteers poured in to prepare to serve almost 600 people.
Lt. Jamie Curry of the local corps said food preparation wasn’t the only thing that the Salvation Army would do Thursday.
“This is really the start of our Christmas drive too, and there is a ton happening here,” Curry said. “A lot of the volunteers that come through our doors today will put more time in over the holiday season, and this gives us a chance for everyone to meet and get to know each other.”
Curry said the Salvation Army has had a stronger drive than in years past because of new ways to reach volunteers.
At ringbells.org, people can find out the opportunities to serve around the community. “That gave us a lot of new people this year in addition to word of mouth and the returning volunteers,” Curry said. “We’ve got a lot of those long-term volunteers out to help get these new people ready for the season.”
Curry said the event Thursday was not just about good food.
“Food opens the door for fellowship,” Curry said. “Most of the people that eat with us today are as excited about the time to spend with others. They are grateful today, but they are also grateful for that opportunity every day. That’s why we are here, because there is a tradition of giving as a family. This is their holiday along with ours. We want to spend it together.”