JOIN Thanksgiving

by Renae Blake

Eight turkeys. Six hams. 13 trays of stuffing. 12 vegetarian dishes. 10 bowls of mashed potatoes. 3 pots gravy. 13 dozen dinner rolls. 32 pies. 2 cheesecakes. More than one hundred bottles of Tazo Tea, juice and water. Everything donated by volunteers.

It is an incredibly empowering experience to see a conceptual idea become memories as did Friday’s Thanksgiving Dinner. When I arrived at Bethlehem Lutheran Church at 11am on Friday to set up tables and chairs for the evening’s event, I thought most of the work was done. Since the end of October, I’ve been returning calls and emails, answering questions, and making requests for donations fairly steadily almost every day. I received as many phone calls the day of the event as I did in that entire three week time span prior. I thought the tough stuff was in the past: I was wrong, of course. But that is something that does with the territory of being a planner: I think, “I plan therefore it shall be:

Lesson One: Even the best plans hold less precedence over the present than you might wish them to.

I was exceedingly fortunate to have not only the help of JOIN volunteers, board members, and staff, but also my own network of classmates from Portland State. A requirement of the University Studies system at PSU is one six credit senior capstone class, which is designed to expand the University Studies goals–critical thinking, communication, diversity, and social responsibility–by applying them to work with a community partner. My particular capstone, Effective Change Agent, varies from the other capstone options. Each student must receive consent to register for the class because the class was created for the students who have established connections with community partners. Most other capstones have one community partner for all 12-14 students enrolled in the class; there are 14 community partners between my classmates and I in our capstone class. Because the work we do with each of our individual community partners is so different–one student teaches the Brazilian martial arts from Capoeira, another plays games with young cancer patients at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, two are coaches at high schools in the Portland Metro Area for basketball and football–an important opportunity for everyone to come together with one purpose is the group project assignment. Several students, myself included, presented group project ideas, and we decided together, unanimously, to put our combined energy toward JOIN’s Thanksgiving Dinner.

Lesson two: accept all the help you can get, because no matter how organized you may be, you need the support of others.

Friday morning, set up went flawlessly with the help of several classmates and two JOIN staff members. Within an hour, the empty hall looked festive and welcoming with three long lines of tables wrapped in gold plastic tablecloth, accompanying chairs, and streamers and balloons strung along the walls. With two Vikings (that’s our mascot at Portland State!) in the kitchen preparing various dishes of food from several boxes of produce volunteer Jessica received as a donation, I left for home to do the last bit or organizing I possibly could before there could be no more planning. Back to the church at 3:30, this truly was the time of calm before the (wonderfully cheerful holiday-like) storm. Food donations and volunteers began arriving at 4pm. All of the dishes of stuffing, pies, and potatoes I had meticulously marked down in my little excel spreadsheet began appearing in hands and on counter tops. Names from voice messages and email sender lines were matched with kind faces as I met the volunteers I’d communicated with online and by telephone for the past few weeks. Every volunteer came prepared to work. Some volunteers began with the 20 pies we were given by Shari’s, a few ran to QFC and Trader Joe’s for last minute needs and additions, and a beverage brigade outfitted the drink table with tea donated by Tazo and an assortment of bottled drinks contributed by Pepsi. Down the hallway from the kitchen, were I spent the majority of the night, members of the JOIN community eagerly awaited the feast in the snack room. Along with the large amounts of pretzels and nuts donated for pre-meal snacking, several volunteers prepared coffee for the dozens of people entering from the cold, rainy weather outside.

Lesson three: Coffee is the beverage of happiness (but I think I knew this one already).

Once the doors opened at five minutes past the 5:30 start time, plates were taken up and serving spoons were hardly set down at the buffet table for nearly an hour. The hardworking kitchen crew, lead by volunteer Jessica, heated food consistently to refill dishes as they emptied. Every seat, both at tables and the pews lining one side of the hall, was occupied in the moments I surveyed the room while running from the kitchen to the drink table to the kids room back to the kitchen in search of one thing or another. More than two hundred people attended Thanksgiving Dinner. And we didn’t run out of food. Though I am unforgivably biased, I would plainly state that the meal was a success by any measure I can think of. Much of this victory I would attribute to the space, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, which so graciously donated the space for the evening. I could not have asked for a better location to work with. I was privileged enough to correspond with Solveig, Bethlehem’s pastor, who is quite simply wonderful to interact with. She was beyond helpful and made herself accessible for the many questions I always find myself inevitably coming up with. And having Solveig at the dinner with her husband and two sons as a safety net for whatever problems I might (but thankfully did not) come across was a godsend. Speaking of safety nets, my mom was truly a saving grace for me. Acting as both reliable parent to me and JOIN board member, she arrived at the church at 3:45 with a dozen beautifully handmade table decorations, a ham, and a giant bag of snack food which a co-worker had given her as a donation for the feast. I don’t know how to express how comforting it was to have someone there was not only as invested in my vision of the event as I was, but who believed in me as an implementer of such a plan just as much. Whatever needed doing, she was there for. And as much as my mom is a constant source of support and encouragement for me, so is she devoted to JOIN. She believes in JOIN and its inspiring, life-changing work, more deeply than I could hope to relay. It’s my mom’s commitment and dedication to JOIN that brought me to this remarkable organization, though it’s the people I’ve met here that consistently affirm my desire to stay. My mom represents the goodness in people that JOIN stands for. At the end of the night, it was Courtenay, my mom, my aunt, and myself stuffing the last of the trash bags and twisted mess of balloons and streamers into the JOIN van. And it was my mom who bought me a cup of tea as congratulations for a joy-filled holiday event for more than 200 members of the JOIN community.

Lesson four: moms are awesome.

When I was little, I used to end my prayers with blessing “everybody else in the whole wide world,” as to not leave anyone out. There are so many people who deserve thanks for their contributions to the Thanksgiving Dinner. My class was an extraordinary asset for all the help and support they lent me and JOIN by setting up the hall, preparing food, gathering donations, and working during the meal. So many volunteers provided food and help; their willingness to donate whatever was needed for the meal overwhelmed me. The JOIN board and staff members jumped in at the last minute to foll in the few needs I had in the days before the feast. And the use of Bethlehem Lutheran, as well as the kind monetary donation from last year’s partners at Sunset Presbyterian Church, ensured the meal was a triumph.

Lesson Five: gratitude is everything.