Sitting alone at a back table, Kit Daszynski ate turkey drenched in brown gravy. He read a worn out hardbound copy of “The Hash Knife” by Zane Grey, a 1930’s Western, as he chewed dark meat.
Before noon on Thanksgiving, Daszynski ate his dinner. It was the first year he attended Salvation Army’s dinner service hosted by the Soldotna Rotary Club.
“I had no place else to go. Well, I had other places to go but this was the best option,” he said. “The food is excellent. I like the turkey. I don’t get to eat it that often.”
Volunteers served about 150 free meals to about 95 residents at the Salvation Army Church on North Forest Drive in Kenai during this year’s dinner.
Several volunteers from Home Depot joined Daszynski at the table. The residents laughed and ate together.
Church envoy Jeannie Fanning, who has helpped organize the dinner with her husband for 10 years, said the meal is for people struggling with finances and for people with no family.
“Many times we’ll see the same faces every year ... and they just want to come in and be around people,” she said. “The dinner is for everybody. Anybody who wants to come in and share the holiday with others.”
Dinner started at 11:30 a.m., and after an hour the room was full. Residents sat at decorated tables while volunteers stood behind heated trays of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, yams, corn and gravy. The volunteers eagerly dished out second and third helpings.
The church and rotary club members cooked 10 turkeys. Half were prepared in the church and half were prepared in the homes of club members.
Local grade school students and businesses, such as Credit Union 1 and Home Depot, also contributed to the dinner.
A dozen third- and fourth-grade students from Cook Inlet Academy peeled potatoes and set tables the day before the dinner.
Margaret Gilman’s class at Kenai Middle School provided placemats.
“The placemats are adorable this year,” Fanning laughed. “There’s one with a picture of a pig that says, ‘Eat ham! No, not me!’”
Other volunteers were residents wanting to give back.
Tonya Moore, a member of the church, made volunteering a regular part of her Thanksgiving. It was her first year helping at the church since moving to Alaska from Colorado.
She said she is especially thankful this holiday. Her father recently went into remission with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, she said.
“They gave him 100 percent remission. It’s awesome,” the 38-year-old stay-at-home mom said. “I’m thankful for my health and my family.”
The many volunteers make the dinner possible, Fanning said.
She said she prepares the same amount of food every year, as it’s unknown whether 20 or 200 people will show up.
Leftover foods are used for future functions, given to volunteers or hauled away in to-go boxes for family and friends. It’s never wasted, she said.
“It’s not a ticketed event, so we just have to make sure we have enough for everybody,” she said.
Attendance can fluctuate from year to year. Different local organizations prepare dinners, but not annually.
“Sometimes an organization will decide to do something and determine it’s too much work,” she said. “We just try and stay steady.”
Rose Clement, 66, of Soldotna attended the dinner for the first time, but she said she always wanted to.
Maybe it’s the holiday spirit that brought her out, she said.
“Good food,” she announced to everyone in the dining room. “Count your many blessings and name them one by one.
“I know a lot of people, and I want to teach them it’s worth coming out to (eat here) at least one time. It’s beautiful.”
She called for more coffee as her husband, Dave Parker, sat eating his meal in silence.
“I told him we must go,” Clement said.
As the volunteers traded shifts at the food line, volunteer Krissy Gribbin grabbed a plate. For her, the meal would be Thanksgiving dinner.
A Kenai Peninsula resident off and on for 20 years, Gribbin was happy to help out and be in the company of others, she said.
“It’s nice to be around friends and family and meet new people,” she said.
“I hand out food, but my goal is to make friends and see some familiar faces,” she said.