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Record turnout at Community Thanksgiving Dinner

Volunteers served up a hot traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey, mashed potatoes and all the fixings1 / 3
Mary Burns of Perham places a lemon meringue pie slice on the desert table at the community dinner last Thursday2 / 3
Bruce Lamar, a longtime cook and first-year volunteer, stirs up gravy3 / 3

How many turkeys does it take to feed a small town?

At this year's Community Thanksgiving Dinner in Perham, it took eight, including three 20-pounders.

Plus 75 pounds of potatoes, and more than 30 pies. Not to mention all the gravy, cranberries, rolls and other foods served.

But there was something in even greater abundance than food at this year's dinner - kindness.

That, along with lots of conversation, laughter and a strong sense of community, warmed the room at Northwoods Assembly Church last Thursday.

People poured through the doors to get a little feel of that warmth - and a little taste of that hot turkey - on what turned out to be a cold, blustery day.

Dirk Currier, the church's pastor, said 196 meals were served this year, which is about 50 more than last year and is the most ever.

"I would say this was the best year overall," he said. "Not only in just the numbers, but also in how well everything was organized and in how well everyone worked alongside of each other."

Currier said the dinner has progressed over the years, growing from a church-specific event to one that has become embraced by the entire community.

"It was a blessing to see people, not just from our church but from other churches, coming to serve," he said. "And it's a blessing to see how it keeps increasing, not just the number of people but the number of people in the community donating and making it happen. It's a community-wide effort."

Currier's wife, Bobbie, was the leading organizer of this year's dinner.

Heather Fones, who put the dinner together for many years in the past, said it takes a lot of organization to pull it off successfully. Planning starts in October, and somebody has to be in charge of pies, while another's in charge of the beverages, another of the kitchen, and so on.

"Having good helpers helps a lot," she said. "It usually takes about 50 volunteers," including those who come in early to cook and who stay late to help with clean-up.

Finding willing volunteers hasn't been a problem, which says a lot given that the dinner can take time away from other family plans on the holiday. But in talking with volunteers at this year's dinner, it's clear they're more than happy to be there.

Bonnie Genin, for example, has been volunteering at the community dinner for the past several years, after being invited to help by her neighbor.

"I like people," Genin said while serving up food on Thursday. "You really feel good at the end of the day."

She was quick to add, though, that feeling good isn't her primary reason for doing it - rather, it's to help others and give back to the community.

Many of the volunteers shared that sentiment.

"You do it to bless others," said June Dornbusch, "but you feel so blessed yourself."

Dornbusch, along with Mary Burns, was busy keeping track of the pies on Thursday. Church members make and donate cherry, lemon, meringue, pecan, apple and pumpkin pies for the dinner, which are then cut and served.

For some people, the pie is the highlight of the event - even for some of the volunteers.

"It's all about the pie," joked an anonymous volunteer who only goes by the nickname 'Mr. Wonderful.' "I come here and eat pie, then I go home and eat more pie."

Mr. Wonderful, who has a long white beard and oversees the beverage station, has been volunteering at the community dinner for more than a dozen years. He's not a member of the church and he drives in from out of town, but he said he always feels welcomed at the dinner and wouldn't miss it.

"It seemed like maybe other people needed some help, and this was a place I found," he said, adding with a hearty laugh that, "They haven't locked the doors on me yet, so I keep coming back. This way you don't have to put up with the relatives!"

Mr. Wonderful wasn't the only volunteer too humble to be named. Another, Donna, would only give her first name as she washed dishes and helped out around the kitchen Thursday morning.

"It's fun to see, to get everybody together and do things in the community," she said. "There's always a need. There's always somebody who doesn't have a family, so if you have a church family, that's great."

For first-time volunteer Bruce Lamar, offering to serve as chef at the dinner gave him a chance to "pay it forward." The long-time cook said he had some harder days in his youth, and volunteering for this gave him a chance to help others. With most of his family out of state, the community dinner also gives Lamar an opportunity to be social.

"I enjoy doing this," he said.

One of the youngest volunteers of the day was 12-year-old Shelby Burns. The daughter of Northwoods youth pastor Stew Burns, she's been raised in the church and has helped out with the community dinner for the past few years.

"It's really fun," she said.

This year, Shelby was in charge of putting pie slices in with the delivered meals, careful to make sure that everyone would get the flavor they requested. Her dad, Stew, has been helping with deliveries for five years.

Stew said about 50 meals are delivered around the area every Thanksgiving, including a bunch that go out to people working in town on the holiday. One family goes out and 'takes orders' for those people, Burns explained, so that even though they can't be at home, they can get a hot Thanksgiving meal.

When asked what he likes best about volunteering for the dinner, he said, "I love sitting and chatting with the elderly on deliveries. Getting to sit and pray with them, that makes it worth it to me."

"The holiday seasons aren't necessarily happy for everyone," he added. "I think people sometimes forget that."