A Thanksgiving Dinner Outreach

By Janet Damian

The year 1997 marked the 5th anniversary of our annual Thanksgiving Dinner Outreach, held at our parish, Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church in Livonia, MI. The idea to hold this annual dinner as a parish event was initiated by the Good Samaritan Committee of the parish. One of the committee members invited a neighbor to his home for Thanksgiving that year, and after witnessing the joy that this simple act of kindness brought to his neighbor, he approached the parish to see if this could be done at the parish for those in the community who had no special place to be for Thanksgiving.

Our parish is blessed with an active Good Samaritan Committee, so getting this project off the ground was not difficult. Many talented people who can plan, cook, organize, and “help” joined forces and made sure the project was a success.

In the first year, guests from a local battered women’s shelter and guests from a men’s shelter were invited. Also, many parishioners attend the dinner, making it their own Thanksgiving celebration for the blessings that God has bestowed on us.

The following is our format for preparing the dinner:

A. PRE-PLANNING (AT LEAST 6 MONTHS IN ADVANCE)

Determine the guests through whatever resources you have in your community: Red Cross, Salvation Army, local social service agencies, other churches, senior citizen groups, family crisis centers, homeless shelters, YMCA/YWCA, public or private schools (for a needy family recommendation).

Invite parishioners and their friends, especially seniors or others who are alone or have nowhere to go. Remember single parents, or newly divorced or separated parishioners. These parishioners and friends may prefer to be “invited to help out” with set up, serving, and cleaning. There is always enough food for even the workers to have a nice dinner.

B. PROBLEMS THAT WE HAVE ENCOUNTERED ARE:

Lack of transportation. We usually have the social service agency coordinate transportation, either through Smart Bus (a service where a smaller public bus can be called and scheduled in advance) or their own van. We have used parishioners as transporters. However, one might want to check with one’s insurance company into any liability in this area.

Shy guests who simply “changed my mind.”

Occasional poor planning, lack of coordination and/or miscommunication in planning.

Unforeseen conflicts within different groups, e.g. the group from the homeless men’s shelter did not mix well with the group from the battered women’s shelter.

Location of facility. An upper middle class suburban location may be a problem if guests need to travel a great distance to get there. Guests may even feel uncomfortable travelling to a different type of neighborhood. However, don’t let it prevent you from asking. Let it be their decision.

C. GET A COMMITMENT from guests up to 3 months in advance, either in writing, through personal contact, by a sign-up poster or other means.

D. ASSESS YOUR FACILITY. Make sure to plan for the number of guests that your facility can accommodate, in terms of seating and kitchen space. We can plan for up to 150 guests in our facility. A larger facility may be able to host a larger guest list with perhaps a “cafeteria style” or “budget” type of serving. We serve the food “family style,” where large platters are placed on each table and the guests help themselves.

E. COORDINATION OF DINNER:

The following areas must be scheduled and coordinated:

Cooks and kitchen help.

Menu planning.

Purchase of food and other items (paper products, decorations, carry-out boxes etc.)

Greeters. The role of greeters is to be at the door when guests arrive. They can show the guests where to hang their coats, where the bathrooms are, indicate any places or activities that are “off-limits” e.g. smoking in the building. They can then show the guests to their table and socialize with them. Be aware that some people may not want to be social, but prefer to be left alone. This also should be respected. (A couple of people may also need to be assigned to the parking lot to direct parking.)

Set-Up of tables, chairs, decorations, table settings. Keep decorations simple and non-breakable, especially if children are invited.

Servers. We use two servers per table of eight. (You may be able to get by with one, depending on your facility.)

Entertainment. Our choir and others, including young children, who just like to sing, sing Christmas carols, inviting guests to join in.

Cleanup Crew.

Distribution of leftover food. At the end of the dinner, if there is unopened food left, it is sent back to the facility with the social worker or person that brought the group. The social worker determines what they can take.

F. GIFTS. We solicit donations from companies, parishioners and friends for “goody bags” given out to the guests. We usually get them practical items such as socks, gloves, sweatshirts, toothpaste, shampoo, toys for the children. The Gift Committee starts early (6 months ahead) to collect, store, sort and bag the items. Publish the needs in the church bulletin or on the bulletin board, constantly keeping an inventory and adjusting the needs list so that the proper amount of each item can be collected. Businesses are also solicited for gift items, e.g. dentists’ offices for toothbrushes, department stores for clothing. Gifts are nice. They should be kept simple, however. This is actually an optional activity, depending on the size and commitment level of the parishioners in carrying out the project.

G. CLOTHING DISTRIBUTION. Infants and children’s clothing, used but in very good condition, can be distributed at the Thanksgiving Dinner also, if you are inviting families or women with children. Check in advance with the social service agency that is sponsoring these guests as to the number of children and sizes. In a separate room we arranged the clothing in stacks by size and gender. Then we let the Moms “go shopping.” Our room can only accommodate two Moms at a time¬ówith a parishioner monitoring the number of items taken to make sure that everyone gets a chance to choose something.

H. FINANCING THE PROJECT. We finance the project through the parish budget. This past year parishioners with businesses and “friends” of the parish contributed cash to help with the food expenses. Although we never have solicited cash contributions in the past, some businesses like to contribute, especially at this time of year, for tax reasons.

I. POST-DINNER MEETING WITH THE WORKERS. It’s a good idea to schedule a post-dinner meeting to go over organizational problems/solutions, and ideas for improvement for the next year. Schedule this meeting as soon as possible so things are fresh in your mind. Issues that may need adjustment for the following year are food quantity purchasing, server organization, gift bag item purchasing, etc.

Best part of the day. Actually the best part of the entire day was serving the molieben service with ALL of the guests (over 200 people) in attendance.