After 12 years of serving Thanksgiving meals to the community, Michael and Vickie Hillicoss know that the holiday is best when shared with friends and family. For thousands of people in North Idaho who otherwise wouldn’t have that option, the Hillicoss family would like to extend an invitation to their turkey day dinner table – and friends are welcome.
In fact, the more people they can pack around the table, the happier the couple would be.
The tradition started in 1998, when the family decided to invite anyone who could benefit from a free meal in a warm, loving and friendly environment. Since that first year, which drew around 35 volunteers and the same number of guests, it’s become a family tradition held annually at the Lake City Senior Center. And it’s needed now more than ever, Michael Hillicoss said.
“It has definitely grown and multiplied since the beginning, many times over. It is truly a community service project in the truest sense of the word. The community provides the food for us every year,” he offered. “For my family, this is our Thanksgiving day meal. We treat this meal just like one that we would have in our home, and we treat everyone like guests in our home. Our mission statement is anyone and everyone who can benefit from this meal can attend. We especially try to reach the elderly and those in need, but it’s also open to anyone that might be alone that day. Thanksgiving is about being with family, and anyone in the community can come.”
And they do.
The meal is a group effort, with as many as 100 volunteers. Last year, volunteers dished up 586 servings of food, including through the Meals on Wheels program, and included about 35 turkeys, 110 pounds of ham and almost 60 pies. It typically costs about $3,000 , with only half of that amount donated so far, Michael Hillicoss said.
“Right now, we are about $1,500 short, so we are running a little behind from where we are normally. But it’s a sign of the times. Everyone is working on a tight budget and we know that,” he explained.
It’s a similar situation at community centers across Kootenai County. This year’s free meals seem to be taking an especially hard hit compared to previous years, with turkey donations and funding down from previous years, while attendance is expected to increase.
That won’t stop any of the various groups from serving to those in need, those overseeing the meals said.
Carolyn Shewfelt, Community Action Partnership food bank manager, said more than 2,500 people have signed up to receive the Thanksgiving turkey baskets, which are filled with all the fixings of a home-cooked meal. Last year, the food bank handed out 863 baskets, and doubled that figure in 2009, distributing 1,743 baskets. In the month of October alone, the food bank was accessed more than 9,600 times by those in need, though that figure covers various factors including clothing and food supplies, topping the previous month’s total by 600.
“This year we’re going to surpass that. It’s a pretty substantial increase,” Shewfelt said. However, she added about the free Thanksgiving baskets, “It seems like the donations are not coming in like they were last year.”
Community Action Partnership partnered with the Kroc Center in Coeur d’Alene to collect items for the baskets in the second annual Families Feeding Families program. With some 17,000 members crossing through the facilities doors, it provided a perfect opportunity to start a donation drive, said Christy Markham, the Kroc Center’s development director, and this year’s drive has already bested last year’s 75 baskets with about 200 bags filled.
“This is so people can have Thanksgiving in their own homes, with the leftovers, with their family and with the people that they bring in,” she offered. “We’ve got 17,000 members that come through our doors – what an amazing vehicle for doing a drive like this.”
Even though the food baskets already were handed out, Shewfelt said that she hopes anyone in need will come to the food bank. “A lot of times people have lost their jobs, and it is their first time coming here. It can be difficult to come in, but I don’t want anyone to feel bad about it because it could happen to any of us,” she said. “We’ll still take donations. We’ll have plenty of space in the freezer,” and she added anything left over will go in December food boxes.
North Idaho residents have always provided in the past, Shewfelt said, and she has no doubt that the same will hold true this Thanksgiving. “We live in an awesome community, and they’ve surprised me before. It’s just amazing what happens when people start hearing about the need,” she said.
Added Michael Hillicoss: “This meal is a labor of love for us and it requires a certain amount of faith and commitment. We were short last year on money, too, but we just know in our hearts that there will always be enough.”
And it’s not a true Thanksgiving feast without leftovers, he explained.
“We are very adamant about sending people home with leftovers,” Michael said. “We really try to make it feel like a home-cooked meal and make everyone feel as though they are guests in our home. What’s Thanksgiving without that midnight turkey sandwich?”
In Post Falls, the Knights of Columbus will host a free meal at St. George’s Catholic Church. Larry Noska, a member of the local chapter of the Knights, said they anticipate several hundred guests this year.
“It’s the full turkey dinner, with dressing, sweet potatoes and cranberries,” he said. “We could probably use some turkeys – we only have about 6 so far. We went through 13 turkeys last year. It’s a nice dinner and there are a lot of people in need of it in the area, that’s for sure. We’ll do whatever we have to do in order to have the dinner.”
What isn’t used will go toward gift baskets for Christmas. Church members delivered 45 last year. “It’s enough to feed a family for a whole week,” Noska said.