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Nearly 200 families turn out for free Thanksgiving meal

Posted: November 25, 2011 - 12:05am
Mayor Bruce Botelho, left, and Rep. Cathy Muñoz kick off the 17th annual Thanksgiving dinner sponsored by the Salvation Army by carving one of the 51 donated turkeys at Hangar on the Wharf.  Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
Mayor Bruce Botelho, left, and Rep. Cathy Muñoz kick off the 17th annual Thanksgiving dinner sponsored by the Salvation Army by carving one of the 51 donated turkeys at Hangar on the Wharf.

About 200 families and 50 volunteers turned out Thursday for the Salvation Army’s annual free Thanksgiving Dinner at the Hangar on the Wharf.

The Salvation Army has hosted the dinner for 17 years running, and this year was just as exceptional as the rest, Salvation Army Capt. Donald Warriner said.

“Juneau should be proud of the dinner we serve,” he said, extending thank-you’s to all who donated food.

For some, volunteering their time to prepare or serve the meal has become a beloved family tradition. Each year, Salvation Army Advisory Board member Jerry Harmon and his two sons-in-law, Ryan Friend and Jeremy Whitmore, spend hours carving turkeys in the Hangar’s kitchen before the big feast as the rest of his family helps set the places and serve the food. This year, there were 52 smoked birds that needed carving.

“There’s a lot of people in the country who have less than everybody else,” Harmon said, adding, “The way times are, it’s just tough.”

Volunteer Gina White, with her 12- and 5-year-old sons in tow, said volunteering at the dinner is the only way to make the holidays bearable after her brother, Brian, and his pregnant wife Jody died in a plane crash on Thanksgiving 10 years ago.

“For me, this is the only way I can make it through the holidays,” she said. “I think it also teaches my kids to give back, instead of just football and food.”

The Wharf’s executive chef, Ron Burns slaved away in the kitchen all day, baking stuffing, side dishes, yams and the like. The reason why?

“I do it because it’s needed, for one,” he said. “But it makes me feel like I’m helping people.”

Salvation Army Advisory Board Chairwoman Carol Pitts said she doesn’t know who gets more out of the dinner: those eating or those serving. But one thing’s sure, she said, there were so many volunteers who wanted to help this year, they had to put them on shifts even though the dinner only lasts three hours.

“People always want to come around and try to donate or work a couple of hours,” she said.

The event has taken place at the Hangar for the past 12 to 13 years in part because it outgrew the church, but also because the former owner of the restaurant, Murray Damitio, wanted to serve people a terrific dinner in an actual restaurant environment, current Hangar owner Reecia Wilson said. Wilson says she was happy to carry on the tradition.

“I think it’s a great thing for the community,” she said, saying the restaurant receives all sorts of people for the feast, including those who are just lonely or don’t have a place to go to eat.

Pitts also thanked the community for coming together to make the event possible. Some of the donors include Shorty Tonsgard with Channel Construction, Dick Hand of Alaska Seafood Company, Rodfather’s Broiler Steak & Seafood, Fred Meyer, Costco, Safeway, Super Bear Supermarket, Sysco and Food Services of America.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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