John “Butch” and Judy Droege, Washington, are thankful for their community, the people who live here and give so much day-in and day-out to make the town what it is.
The Droeges are not alone. That much is evident by the number of volunteers who show up on Thanksgiving morning each year to help them serve a free community meal with all of the fixings — baked turkey, homemade dressing, green beans, Irish potatoes and cranberry sauce, with a variety of pies served with Cool Whip topping.
It’s in the dozens. While most people are at home preparing their own meals and homes for a houseful of guests, others come together to make sure people in the community who have no family to gather with or not enough strength to make the large traditional meal or perhaps not enough money to buy all of the groceries have a little bit of company for the day and a plateful of the holiday’s best flavors.
“It surprises me how many people come to help,” said Butch Droege, whose wife, Judy, suggested organizing the first free community Thanksgiving meal 27 years ago. “It was never in our dream that that many people would come.”
Even more people, businesses and organizations support the free meal through cash donations to help pay for the food.
“We usually get enough in donations every year to cover the cost. We only had one year that we each had to pitch in to cover a little bit,” said Karen Engelkemeyer, Judy Droege’s sister who has been volunteering at the event with her own family from the beginning.
Any money that is left after all the bills have been paid is donated to the food pantries and other local nonprofits that help people in need, like St. Vincent de Paul Society and Pregnancy Assistance Center.
Any leftover food is donated to The Harvest Table, a free community meal served every Saturday night from 5 to 6 p.m. at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ at Fifth and Market streets.
From 20 Meals to 600
The Droeges knew of other communities that hosted free Thanksgiving meals, and Judy felt they could do the same thing in Washington. As the owners of Droege’s Catering, the couple knows the ins and outs of serving big meals to large groups of people.
So they gathered a few friends and like-minded people to serve the meal, which was cooked and prepared — then, as it is now — by the Droege’s longtime employee, Dennis Holtmeyer, and his crew.
Yet as heartwarming as the idea was, it took a few years before it caught on. The first year, there may have even been more volunteers than guests.
“We didn’t have a large showing, maybe 20 people,” Butch recalled.
Today the numbers are 30 times that. Last year, organizers estimate they served more than 600 meals. That includes both dine-in guests and homebound residents who have their meals delivered by volunteers.
Longtime committee member Tom Dill, who oversees the meal deliveries, estimated they hand-deliver as many as 150 meals, sometimes more, each year. They make deliveries all around Washington, and partner with volunteers from the Washington Senior Center’s Meals on Wheels program to deliver meals to people in outlying areas.
“It really has taken off now,” said Engelkemeyer, who admits she had her doubts that first year about whether or not it would be successful.
“I thought it was a great idea, but I wasn’t sure how many people would come,” she said.
The meal was originally served in the lower level of the city auditorium on High Street by the swimming pool, but as the number of guests grew, the meal was moved to the cafeteria at St. Francis Borgia Grade School on Cedar Street in Downtown Washington.
“They are very generous, letting us use it,” said Droege.
The meal is nondenominational, and everyone is welcome to attend.
Mission Is Fellowship and Food
The mission of the meal has always been as much about bringing people together for fellowship as providing a holiday meal. That is why the volunteers who deliver meals to shut-in residents are encouraged to spend a few minutes talking with the guests, even if it’s only through the door or on the front porch.
“Our main purpose has always been to have people not be alone on Thanksgiving,” said Engelkemeyer. “We wanted everyone to have someone to be with, to give people a place to come and make them feel as at home as possible with other people to talk with and be with on Thanksgiving Day.”
That has been the best part of the experience all these years, said Butch Droege.
“It’s really about people. The best part is to see people who come to eat dinner there enjoy themselves with their friends or their relatives and the volunteers who make an effort to go to talk with them and make them feel comfortable,” he said.
“There are a lot of people who don’t have any relatives in the area or can’t afford to travel to see them. This gives them an opportunity to go somewhere.”
Meals also are delivered to all of the first responders (police officers, EMTs and paramedics) on duty that day, as well as the hospital staff.
The committee receives thank-you notes from guests who appreciate both the fellowship and the food, he noted.
Volunteers: Young, Old, Families
The meal operates every year like a well-oiled machine, with longtime volunteers often manning the same jobs year after year. Volunteers help with everything from setup to serving to deliveries to cleanup.
Aside from cooking and preparing the food, volunteers work from around 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The volunteering process is more organized than it was in the beginning, said Engelkemeyer, noting “volunteers used to just be told to show up and they would be assigned a job to do.”
Now, there is a volunteer coordinator who contacts the volunteers ahead of time to assign them a work shift and a specific job.
Volunteers are people of all ages, and many are families with three generations helping out.
Tom Dill, a longtime committee member who organizes the delivery portion of the meals, is joined by his children and grandchildren. This year, the family may even be joined by extended family and friends who are still in town after a wedding last weekend.
“It’s very festive,” said Dill of the atmosphere. “We emphasize the community part as well as the meal.”
As much work as goes into the event, Engelkemeyer said it’s also a fun way to spend part of their Thanksgiving Day.
“I look forward to seeing the other people I work with,” she said. “Sometimes that’s the only time I get to see them all year is when we are there working together.”
Thinking back 27 years to when they organized the first community Thanksgiving meal, Droege said his children were young adults in their 20s, and they had no grandchildren yet.
These days, their children are married with children of their own, and they all pitch in to help give back to the community they love.
“Sometimes people don’t realize what a wonderful community that we live in,” said Droege. “Just look at the Fair, all those volunteers, and look at the clubs and organizations that help other people all the time in many ways.”
The free community Thanksgiving meal is an expression of the gratitude that he, all the volunteers and everyone who contributes feel.