For more than 30 years, people in Lawrence have been able to count on a Thanksgiving meal no matter their circumstances.
Donated turkeys and volunteered time come together in a church basement, and those on both sides of the serving spoon seem to benefit.
Ivy Wagner and her family were among the first to sit down among the fold-out tables Thursday in the basement of the First Christian Church, 1000 Kentucky St. Wagner recently moved to back to Lawrence with her husband, Julius Ssemanda, who is originally from Uganda.
“We just didn’t have other people to celebrate with because we are newly relocated back here,” Wagner said. “To make everything at home, just two of us, would have been a lot of work, a lot of money and a lot of time.”
Instead, Wagner, Ssemanda and their 9-month-old son were in the company of about 150 others at the annual Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen Thanksgiving dinner. LINK began serving free community meals in 1984, and each year serves a Thanksgiving dinner of turkey and all its traditional accompaniments to up to 200 people. Volunteers also help prepare and deliver meals to the homes of hundreds more.
This year, LINK board secretary Deb Engstrom said they delivered 600 meals and expected to serve at least 150 at the church. A donor who prefers to stay anonymous provides the turkeys, and LINK’s member congregations donate other components of the meal. The dinners are cooked and prepared at Maceli’s, 1031 New Hampshire St.
Frank Ybarra was one of the volunteers serving food at the church as people passed through the buffet-style Thanksgiving lineup of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and pie. It was Ybarra’s first year volunteering at LINK, and he said that with the current political climate in the country, he wanted to do something positive.
“There has been a lot of divisive talk in the country and a lot of focus on differences,” Ybarra said. “And it seems like the air is charged with a lot of negativity, and for me personally this is a way to clear that air and bring positivity to the situation.”
In the dining area, Mary Louise Taylor greeted people passing by her table as she sat eating dessert. Taylor, 64, said her husband died two years ago and that she often comes to LINK — which serves four community meals per week — to be around others.
“I just come here to enjoy myself and eat dinner,” said Taylor, who said she lives a few blocks from the church. “I just visit with a lot of friends.”
Wagner noted that communal aspect as well. She said she served at LINK when she was in high school, and one of the reasons she wanted to bring her family was to show her husband what she called a Lawrence tradition.
“It’s a place where people can be part of the community instead of just eating alone,” Wagner said. “There’s a place to go, and a lot of people know each other here. It’s not just a once-a-year thing.”
The tradition takes a lot of volunteers to pull off — Engstrom said about 150 helped throughout the process. Tasks include receiving the food donations, packing up meals and delivering them. At the church, volunteers help set up, serve and clean up the dinner.
Ybarra’s day started alongside other volunteers prepping meals Thursday morning at Maceli’s. As the lines at the buffet began to thin out, Ybarra said the experience had been a good one, filled with lots of friendly interactions.
“This is certainly one of the best Thanksgivings I’ve ever had,” Ybarra said. “…I can really feel the spirit of Thanksgiving in this kitchen and out there in the dining area.”