Annual Thanksgiving dinner provides meal to all
MOUNT VERNON — For the last 18 years, community members from Mount Vernon and beyond, no matter their circumstances, have had a place to go for a Thanksgiving meal, thanks, largely, to one family.
Sarah Wood first started the meal with other parents who homeschooled their children as a project that would allow the children to practice skills such as converting recipes and learning to shop and how to use coupons and price match. For the first few years the meal wasn’t community wide, but was instead open to first responders and veterans. However Easter morning of 1990, Wood’s daughter Michelle died in a fire. The family found a plethora of ways to keep her memory alive, including an Easter egg hunt that they still help with, but finally settled on putting on the Thanksgiving meal in her memory.
Each year, the meal is free and open to the public. Donations for the meal are accepted, but never requested, Wood explained.
“As far as who we serve, anybody,” Wood said. “It is open to anyone who wants to come. If that means somebody’s going to be alone we want them to come and join us. Somebody will come an eat with them. If it means that somebody doesn’t have the means to have a nice Thanksgiving dinner, we want them to come. We take donations if people want to give them, but we don’t ask for them. There’s no admission, no ticket, no nothing.”
Donations throughout the rest of the year from various businesses, agencies and individuals help make the meal what it is, Wood explained. Each year, the Knox County Board of Commissioners donates the use of the Knox County Memorial Building basement to Wood for the meal.
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving each year, Wood goes around picking up donations of food and decorations for the meal and prepping for Wednesday’s meal. Cooking the turkeys begins early in the morning Wednesday so that everything is ready for the 4 o’clock meal.
This year Wood and volunteers are cooking 19 turkeys, making 250 pounds of white potatoes into mashed potatoes, making 60 pounds of sweet potatoes and will be using 16 gallons of milk for homemade, old fashioned hot chocolate. The meal, which typically aims to feed 500, according to Wood, will also come complete with a variety of desserts.
Putting on the meal takes quite a bit of coordinating and work from Wood and her family in the weeks and months before the meal, but it takes a force of around 50 to 75 volunteers on the day of to bring everything together and keep the meal going without a hitch. Students, now grown, who helped with the initial dinners still come back to help from time to time, and the dinner has brought in a range of volunteers over the years, Wood said, including Boy Scout troops, Girls Scout troops, church groups, The Knox County Board of Realtors, representatives from the Health Department and police officers and firefighters.
“[It’s] whoever wants to come in and help,” Wood explained.
Over the years, and through her experience helping with the Hot Meals program, Wood has learned to pray rather than worry when it seems like there won’t be enough food to feed all who come. Donations, she explained, have a way of coming in just when they’re needed.
“I used to get really stressed out and freak out a lot because we didn’t have a turkey, and then it was like, you know it could be 2 a.m. and I need one more turkey and then all the sudden the phone rings and somebody gives me two,” Wood explained. “So I quit worrying about that part and now I just come and cook and pray that people come to eat.”
The meal has created a brand new tradition for the Wood family of coming together the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to put on a meal for the entire community. Wood noted that the family does still get together on Thanksgiving, though the meal isn’t always the traditional Thanksgiving fare. And for Wood, the meal has given her a way to fill up the hole in her heart from the loss of her daughter with helping others in need.
“I dread holidays truthfully. I mean Easter, when I was working, I wouldn’t work on Easter because [Michelle] died on Easter and I wanted to spend Easter with my kids, but you dread it because she’s not there,” Wood explained. “So this way I can give to someone else. We’ve even had people that had a fire on [the Monday before Thanksgiving] and they came here for Thanksgiving dinner, and the mom hugged me and she said that, you know, if we wouldn’t have had the Thanksgiving dinner that they wouldn’t have had Thanksgiving, because they didn’t have anywhere to go. It makes you feel good when you hear the people that wouldn’t have but did have because we did it.”
The free community Thanksgiving meal will be held Wednesday in the Knox County Memorial Building basement, 112 E. High St., Mount Vernon. Doors will open at 3:30 and the meal will be served from 4-7 p.m. Handicap parking will be available in front of the building and the building is equipped with elevators for individuals in a wheel chair.
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