Volunteers put the ‘giving’ in Thanksgiving
A VOLUNTEER CUTS up a turkey at the Sonoma Community Center.
Editor’s Note: The season of gratitude arrives this week, and to mark the occasion the Index-Tribune puts the spotlight on volunteers. This series will include a few of the hundreds whose contributions make the holidays brighter for others.
From 5 a.m. cooking sessions to cleaning up after 450 diners, the volunteers aren’t shy about showing their support on Thanksgiving. Hundreds give up the holiday with their own families to serve community members at free Thanksgiving dinners hosted by the Sonoma Community Center and Vintage House senior center.
But, the volunteers are keeping a little known secret, at least little known to those who don’t give back regularly. You see, these volunteers get as much as they give.
“I hate to say this so selfishly, it’s just such a wonderful experience,” said Kathleen Gilmour with a guilty gleam in her eye.
“I love it here, it’s just fun and I love to do it,” echoed Sandy Hicks, who’s volunteered on Thanksgiving for five years.
Both women spend their holidays serving Sonoma’s seniors at Vintage House. Hicks will be in the senior center’s kitchen on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, preparing hundreds of pounds of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, stuffing, green beans and cranberry relish for around 250 diners. With her fellow volunteers alongside, Hicks said the experience is like coming home.
“I like the family attitude,” she said. “I have no family really, so the holidays are kind of empty for me. I love it here.”
Gilmour has the opposite problem.
“I have too much family,” she laughed. Between three children and a gaggle of grandkids, she said it just got too complicated to decide where to celebrate, so instead they all head to Vintage House.
“This is a good compromise,” she said, adding that it’s been a family tradition for five years. “It was an experience for them to see what volunteering was all about.”
The Gilmour family prefers to interface with guests on the service side of volunteering. As the 150 or so attendees gather in the dining room, festooned for the season, they are treated to a sit-down dinner.
“We meet all of the guests and take all of the compliments,” Gilmour joked. “We all really work to make sure the seniors have a fine dining experience.”
Hicks and Gilmour are just two of dozens of volunteers who help out at the senior center, along with the Sonoma Kiwanis Club, which delivers around 100 meals to homebound seniors. The meal is also made possible by donations from Basque Boulangerie, Friedman Brothers, the Native Sons of the Golden West, Safeway, Sonoma Market and Vintage House.
Over at the Sonoma Community Center, Gary Edwards has been lending his culinary talents for around a decade. The art of cooking a multi-course meal for 400 or more has become almost a science for Edwards, a duty he shares with fellow volunteer chefs Mark Bramfitt, Matt Murray, Jon Deiderich, Sue Patterson and Lisa Thayer.
The process begins a week or so before the holiday, when Edwards checks in with Paul’s Produce, Romanelli Produce and Green String Farms to see what produce is in season and begins to craft a menu. The local produce purveyors donate hundreds of pounds of fresh vegetables for the event.
“I just get a sense of what’s growing out there,” he said. “It’s all fresh and organic. Every bit of food is made with love by the community.”
On Tuesday, Edwards and the other volunteers will begin prepping the vegetables, but the real work begins on Wednesday. That’s the start of the “36 hour countdown,” when they’ll prepare all the food so it’s ready to pop in the oven on Thursday. That includes a small flock of organic turkeys, purchased thanks to a $1,000 donation from the Rotary Club of Sonoma Valley.
“We’ll probably have 34 or 35 turkeys all together,” Edwards said, adding that the birds get cooked up Thursday at Broadway Catering, which lends its expansive kitchen for the day.
From 3 to 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving, the crew of about 50 volunteers are busy feeding hundreds of diners who come to the center for the free feast in a festive Andrews Hall, which is transformed with flower donations from Whole Foods. The Earl Blue Quartet will again step up to keep the massive crowd entertained with holiday tunes.
“That two hours is pretty intense,” Edwards admits. “But it’s an amazing thing – the whole day.”
Reservations are required for the free Thanksgiving at Vintage House, but anyone can come down to the community center for the holiday. Both organizations are seeking cash donations to offset meal costs, while the community center is also looking for donations of desserts that can be dropped off, along with volunteers to help clean up on Thursday.
For more information, call Vintage House at 996-0311, or the Sonoma Community Center at 938-4626, ext. 1.