With Thanksgiving less than 24 hours away, the cafeteria at Burlington High School filled with volunteers Wednesday as they prepared to feed a village ahead of the 24th annual Burlington Community Thanksgiving Dinner.
While two lines of volunteers worked away in the kitchen to remove the bones from 180 turkeys and Michael Blythe busied himself washing dishes and silverware, others, like Graceanne Strabala, 15, and Paxton Strabala, 14, worked to create a festive atmosphere for the next day's diners to enjoy.
The two picked through a tote of artificial fall leaves that would be strung around the cafeteria.
"It's fun and it feels good to help out," Grace Anne Strabala said.
This is the fourth year the two have helped to decorate the cafeteria in preparation for the event. Their aunt, Melissa Schwenker, is among the dinner's founders.
Schwenker and some of her coworkers moved to Burlington in 1994 to work in managerial positions for J.C. Penny.
"Because we were all from out of the area, we had nowhere to go on Thanksgiving day," she said.
So they traveled to Moline, Illinois, to volunteer at the Quad Cities' Community Thanksgiving Dinner, which takes place each year at SouthPark Mall.
They brought the idea back with them and formed a committee to organize Burlington's first community Thanksgiving dinner the following year.
"We just didn't want people to eat alone on Thanksgiving, so this was a way people could come together," said Kay Weiss, another founding member of the committee.
Everything was prepared by hand by the committee and volunteers, from the turkey to the potatoes, which were donated by Sterzing Food Co. Schwenker recalled having to peel and mash those potatoes by hand.
"It was labor intensive," she said.
They served 250 dinners that first year, and the numbers crept up over the next several years.
When the school district offered up its kitchen and cafeteria for the event, even more people were able to share a meal. Now, the event serves between 1,600 and 1,800 dinners each year.
"What they do for us is just unbelievable," Tom Durgin of Burlington said of the district and its employees. "They help us set up with the equipment, and the janitorial staff is just great, because without them, we couldn't do it."
Durgin took over kitchen operations for longtime volunteers Jerry and Jackie Grabel, who took a well-deserved break from the Thanksgiving dinner preparations this year.
Durgin had worked the kitchen for the first 12 years of the event before work prevented him from continuing. Now retired, he jumped back into the role wholeheartedly.
"The cooking's the easy part," he said while staring down 200 pies and 192 loaves of bread stacked in the hallway. Those pies still needed to be cut and the bread still needed to be prepped for the about 400 pounds of stuffing that will be served today.
It's the work beforehand, such as preparing the stuffing to be cooked, that takes the longest.
"We rely on volunteers to come and work and donate food," Schwenker said. "It's a huge community volunteer effort."
In addition to the more than 200 volunteers as well as monetary donations, 27 businesses donated food and supplies for the event.
Not everyone who gets a dinner will eat it in the cafeteria. Community Action has 752 deliveries set for today, up 52 from last year. The meal deliveries are meant for people with disabilities who have difficulty getting out of their homes.
Whether eating at home alone or in the cafeteria among others, those treated to a dinner will be able to enjoy a feast of turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, jello and pie.