Roasted turkey with all the trimmings — including garlic mashed potatoes, candied yams, Caesar salad and a rich assortment of desserts — were all part of the package as about 60 volunteers contributed in making Immanuel Lutheran Church the go-to spot on Thanksgiving Thursday for free tasty food, good music and a place to catch up with old friends and neighbors.
In what began as a charitable initiative about 15 years ago, Al Blouin and Judi Howard have annually poured their energies into making Thanksgiving a day to look forward to for the less fortunate or those who don’t have family or friends to celebrate with during the national holiday.
“Some of our folks here are homeless and then some of them are just families who are older and don’t have kids at home now … The whole theme of this is that we are providing people with a place to go,” said Howard, a local parishioner of Centralia’s Community Church of God who is already planning to host a free Christmas dinner in less than a month.
The festive Thanksgiving gathering typically attracts between 130 to 180 individuals, with more than half of them helping themselves to a second meal, according to Blouin, who also mentioned that many guests usually bring two more meals home with them.
What’s more, the volunteer staff offers transportation to attendees who may otherwise be confined to their homes.
“It’s for anybody who’s hungry,” Blouin said. “The need is great and we try to meet that need in any way we can.”
But while the guests are appreciative of the food and hospitality they’re afforded at the celebratory dinner, one can argue that the volunteers experience just as much joy and gratitude in contributing to the annual affair.
Jean Durr and Sandra Perez were among a group of first-time helpers on hand who were especially thankful for the opportunity to give back to their fellow community members while serving hundreds of slices of fresh pumpkin pie.
“This is really easy. I love meeting new people and I’m loving the fact that I’m helping people. I’m just embracing the moment,” said Perez, who was accompanied by her two sons, Leonardo and Adan, who both chipped in with serving and cleanup duties.
Blouin himself is no stranger to serving others, as he formerly served his country in the U.S. military, along with several members of his immediate and extended family, before embarking on a 49-year career as a cement mason. He retired as a diabled veteran.
While greeting some of his old friends and other attendees during the holiday ritual, Blouin filled in The Chronicle on the positive feedback he gets from many of the guests, which only drives him to donate even more of his time and strength to lend a hand to those who need it the most.
“The people like this one because, first of all, they’re served and they know that our belief is that when they come here, it’s like they’re coming to our house. It’s a special occasion; they’re special and we want to treat them special. You know, a person’s dignity is probably the most important thing they own. So, we try not to take dignity away from anyone,” he said.