November 28, 2017
The Harvest Youth Board served traditional Thanksgiving dinners, with extra helpings of good will, community spirit and youthful energy, to thousands of area residents on Nov. 22.
More than 2,400 meals were served or delivered during the W. Dan Prince III Thanksgiving Eve Dinner at Martinsville High School. The dinner was sponsored by the youth board and carried out with the help of hundreds of volunteers who did everything from slicing and serving more than 1,000 pounds of meat to delivering 1,803 dinners throughout Martinsville and Henry County.
“Everything was beyond my expectations,” said Allyson Rothrock, president of The Harvest Foundation, as the event wound down at 4 p.m.
DeWitt House, senior program officer at Harvest and advisor to the Youth Board, said 294 people signed up beforehand to volunteer at the dinner, up from 177 last year. By the time walk-ins are counted, he said he expects the volunteers to number 300.
Many of them were students, some of whom volunteered to get service credit for school organizations. “They come for service hours and leave with a lot more,” said Karli Foster, a senior at Bassett High School and chairperson of the youth board.
Other young people said they volunteered to help their community and its residents. Regardless of the reason, the youths’ involvement and interest were praised by many of those at the dinner.
Rothrock noted the energy that the young people brought to the event. They are “all about giving back” to the community, she added.
The meal was a traditional Thanksgiving menu of turkey, ham, green beans, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, rolls and desserts. The meal was free for anyone in the community, regardless of need.
Those who came to the high school were served plates of food on tables with autumn decorations, and those who could not ordered meals that were delivered, all by volunteers.
The food was cooked by volunteers under the guidance of chief cook Scott Norman, who also has been the chief cook for Richard’s Dinner, the annual Christmas Day meal at First Baptist Church in Martinsville, for about 25 years.
How much food do you need to serve 2,400 meals? Norman said the Thanksgiving Eve dinner used about 530 pounds of turkey, 560 pounds of ham, 90 No. 10 (roughly gallon size) cans of green beans and 10 cases (roughly the size of a laundry basket) of stuffing as well as potatoes, desserts and more.
“I’ve never seen so much turkey and ham in my life,” quipped youth board member Ellie McGovern.
Norman began cooking the turkeys Monday night in ovens at Smith Memorial United Methodist, First Baptist and Hillcrest Baptist churches and the Salvation Army. That was an all-night job, with Norman driving between the locations until all the meat was cooked.
Shindigs catering provided freezer space, and by 4 p.m. Tuesday, meat slicing and other prep work began at the high school.
This year the Youth Board purchased equipment, such as pots, pans, slicer and chafing sets, for use in preparing the meal. Norman then will use the equipment for Richard’s Dinner, where some Youth Board members also will volunteer.
Last year’s dinner was prepared elsewhere and brought to Martinsville High School to be served. This year, Martinsville School Superintendent Zeb Talley allowed more of the work to be done at the school.
“We’ll take care of this group every year,” Talley said as he and his wife arrived to volunteer at the dinner. “It’s (the dinner) a community event; we want to be part of it. We have a lot of pride in where we live.”
“The Harvest Foundation has given us so much. … We’re in its debt,” he said.
Looking at the crowd, Talley said the young people were setting a great example with their service.
“If we can feed people, it is an honor,” he added.
Everything went off without a hitch, Norman said. “It exceeded our expectations.”
Norman said he learned how to cook from area chefs, including Richard Sarver, for whom Richard’s Dinner is named; Jeff Butchko; and others.
Now, his job is to teach the young people how to put on such a meal, he said. The teens “are extremely bright and caught on,” he said, especially praising Foster. “She’s great in the kitchen; she’s great with the volunteers.”
But there is more to the dinner than food. Norman said it teaches the youths that “there are people right around you who are not as well off as you are. I’m not talking about money. There are many people who have no one around at Thanksgiving. Many have no food. It’s a different perspective.”
The young people also learn to work together, delegate tasks, cook, recruit and manage volunteers and other skills, he said. But the most important thing they learn is perspective, he added.
The community’s benefit from the dinner is “beyond food,” Norman said. “If you can change people’s perspective, you change people.”
As for him, “the world’s a pretty messed up place. I can’t fix that. (So) I pick one day I can fix. Nobody should be alone for Christmas dinner. The kids wanted to learn, and I’m teaching them. Right now, they could pull it off (the dinner) if they needed to.
“In a few more years, I’ll sit and eat and watch. For 30 years I’ve been a cook. One time for Thanksgiving, I’d love to walk in and experience being a guest,” Norman added, predicting that may happen next year.
Many of the people who ate their Thanksgiving meal at the high school on Wednesday appreciated the Youth Board’s efforts as much as the food.
Cassandra Walker of Martinsville was able to eat a quiet meal while two volunteers, Bassett High School freshmen Caroline Cook and Allie Laine, played with her toddler daughter nearby.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s God-given for those in need or who can’t get out and do. … It’s a joy for them.”
Both Cook and Laine said they like helping with the dinner because the volunteers can pick where they want to help, such as serving lines or talking with diners — or playing with a child.
Laine added that it is good to help people who may not be able to have a Thanksgiving holiday. Terri Johnson of Martinsville brought others to the dinner and said it was nice to come out and have a meal.
“It’s amazing. … There are so many people in the community that may need a meal,” she said, adding that she also was impressed by the number of volunteers and that so many were teenagers.
Randy Mize of Bassett attended the Thanksgiving Eve dinner for the first time.
“It’s wonderful they do stuff like this,” he said.
He was a fire fighter and EMT for 17 years. Now, he is retired and has volunteered with the Red Cross for six years, helping fire victims get back on their feet.
“I hope the kids carry the spirit” of volunteering as they get older, Mize said.
Patrick H. Wright of Martinsville said the meal was good, and he got plenty of food.
“I liked it so well I wish I could help them out,” he added.
Kenny Smith of Martinsville said the dinner was “pretty good.” He went to last year’s dinner, and said he was impressed with the number of young people there this time around.
David Hawkes of Martinsville said, “there probably is no place else where a community this size does something like this.”
He gave credit for that to the Harvest Foundation. “Without the Harvest Foundation this wouldn’t exist,” he said, gesturing to the people eating and assembling dinners around the cafeteria.
Angela Dillon of Bassett Forks was a first-time volunteer who was impressed by the number of others who also gave of their time Wednesday. She noted that 1,800 delivered meals was a large number and said she would like to see more people eat at the high school. She especially noted the centerpieces — pumpkins with fresh flowers — that came from the Magna Vista High School Horticulture Department.
Dillon volunteers a lot in connection with her work and tries to encourage her three sons to do the same. Two of her sons are grown and the third, Reese Dillon, 14, a ninth-grader at Bassett High School, was with her Wednesday. He said he liked seeing all the young people helping out.
“It gets you in the holiday spirit,” his mother added.
Dr. Paul Eason, chairman of the Harvest Foundation board, noted that the dinner fits the mission of the foundation and Youth Board. According to its website, the foundation’s mission is to research and responsibly invest in programs and initiatives to address local challenges in health, education and community vitality.
The dinner teaches Youth Board members organization skills, and everyone learns sharing and caring, he added.
Greg Peitz of Henry County was one of about 80 drivers who delivered meals on Wednesday. “I have a car, time and money” so he was helping out, he said, adding that this was his first time helping at the dinner.
“It’s great turnout of our youth for the process of giving,” he said. “It’s a good start for them on their journey.
At least two local mothers volunteered to help their children learn the value of helping others.
Tiffani Underwood said she came with her two children, Finley, 14, a freshman at Martinsville High School, and Camille, 11, a sixth-grader at Laurel Park Middle School, to instill in them the idea of volunteering and giving back to their community.
The dinner is a good thing for the community, she said, adding that she also has volunteered with Richard’s Dinner.
Camille said “it is really great to see a lot of people coming together” for the dinner.
Finley praised the youth who put on the dinner and gave back to the community.
Jenny Yates of Collinsville brought her children, Ethan, 10, and Jade, 6, because she wanted them to “have this kind of experience” with neighbors helping neighbors. “I feel like we’re making a difference. Who needs turkey when you’re giving your heart.”
Jade said she liked the food — especially the bread — and “giving food to others who don’t have it.” Asked if it made her happy to do that, she said it made her hungry.
Ethan said he liked giving food to people who may not have had any.
Wednesday’s dinner was a family affair for Christina and Travis Tisdale of Snow Creek. Their son, Jacob, is on the Youth Board, so they volunteered with him, as did their other son, Caleb Tisdale, and the boys’ grandmother, Elaine Tisdale.
Caleb, a Carlisle School graduate, is home from the University of Virginia for Thanksgiving.
“It’s the right thing to do for the community,” Christina said of volunteering at the dinner, adding that she likes the idea of a gathering place for Thanksgiving. No one should be isolated or alone at the holiday, she said.
The family has volunteered at other community dinners, so they know it is an ordeal to stage. Christina said she is “in awe” of the number of young people who volunteered Wednesday. The cafeteria was “a sea of white shirts” worn by volunteers, she added.
McGovern, a junior at MHS who joined the Harvest Youth Board this year, called the dinner “incredible.”
She was a greeter at the dinner, welcoming guests and directing them to tables. She also talked with people as they ate and “heard their stories” about their experiences and why they had come to the dinner.
“I’m glad we can give this to people,” she said.
She and her mother, Carole McGovern, also delivered meals, including a special one to a friend of hers. That was a new feature of the dinner, started this year so Youth Board members could help someone they know have Thanksgiving dinner.
Each board member could contribute $25, which was matched by the Harvest Youth Board and used to buy the ingredients for a Thanksgiving dinner. The food boxes were gift-wrapped and presented as a surprise.
McGovern’s recipient had no idea that the meal was coming, and she hugged McGovern for the gift of turkey, ham, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, gravy, rolls and pumpkin pie.
“It’s the first time I can actually say I’m doing something for the community,” McGovern said as she drove away. “It makes me so happy. Her parents will come home (from work) and Thanksgiving dinner will be ready. She’ll cook it. It’s wonderful.”
McGovern said she has been surprised to learn how much work goes into the dinner. The youth board has been planning it for months, with attention given to each detail, she said.
“I can honestly say every place I delivered to today needed a good Thanksgiving meal,” Carole McGovern said as they finished their deliveries.
Last year’s youth board chairperson, Max Pinkston, came home from James Madison University to help with the meal. He was checking on the various serving stations to make sure everything was running smoothly.
“Last year was a success, but this year is topping it” with more people taking part in the meal and volunteering, he said.
He was one of eight former board members who came back to help.
Another was Paulina Vazquez, who was chairperson of the board in its first year in 2015. A Thanksgiving Eve dinner was considered that year but it was too late to pull it off. The first dinner was held in 2016 and Vazquez returned to help then as well.
She called Wednesday’s dinner “amazing … a huge success.”
“The volunteers made it so much easier,” she said. “Everyone has a job. The volunteers are happy to be here.”
She attributed the larger numbers to the increased exposure of the dinner and the youth board in the past year, and she said the board members — past and present — already are looking for ways to improve the event in the future.
This was the second annual dinner, and Rothrock said she expects the youth board will continue it.
“It’ll keep getting better and growing,” she said.
For instance, she said the young people like meeting and talking with people when they eat at the school, so they hope to expand that next year.
House also mentioned some ideas for changes. He said servers should be trained in portion sizes because they ran out of turkey as some of the final meals were served Wednesday. Ham was increased to compensate, he said.
Also, House said, more drivers are needed, volunteers may be scheduled in shifts to avoid idle time, some packaging may be changed, the delivery deadline may be moved back to allow more time for scheduling and contact numbers may be required for deliveries.
But such changes are to be expected with such an event, House said.
“I’m really proud of the young people. It’s just amazing work they’re doing. The youth board members who have graduated came back and worked hard. They get a great feeling out of it,” he said.
He praised the leadership of Foster and Vice Chairperson Kendall Cope. “All the youth board members worked so hard today. Every one of them deserves” credit for the event’s success.
Foster agreed that the dinner “went way better than I ever could have expected.”
Her goal was to beat last year’s total of 1,704 dinners served. That was accomplished.
And next year? Foster will leave the youth board when she graduates from high school in the spring. But like the former board members who came back for Wednesday’s dinner, she said she expects to return to help.
“They can’t keep me away,” she added.