KEARNEY — On the day before Thanksgiving, Karen Schutte sat in the Old Town Hall and pointed to 36 empty foil pans that would hold stuffing for the annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner.
“I couldn’t tell you what the stuffing recipe is,” she said, laughing. “I just know it. Bread crumbs?”
Schutte runs the kitchen for the annual feast, put on by Kearney Area Concerned Citizens. About 25 volunteers showed up at the Old Town Hall Wednesday to peel 400 pounds of potatoes, make stuffing, set tables, rub spices on 46 turkeys and much, much more.
But only two volunteers had arrived at 7 a.m., and that worried Galen Kotrous, a key volunteer — and former chair — of this event that started 35 years ago. He feared that Tuesday’s snowstorm might keep some people away.
“Usually we have 15 people peeling and it takes one-and-a-half hours,” he said.
Kotrous called a local radio show and asked for help. Volunteers arrived, and the potatoes got peeled.
Volunteers have fun. They laugh. Sue Broeker, who peeled sweet potatoes with Kathy Morrow in the early afternoon, said. “I’m here because my husband volunteered me.”
Michele Kaufman, volunteering for her second year, said, “This is a blast. I love talking to the people who come to the dinner.”
Renae Self has volunteered for 20 years because “No one should be alone for Thanksgiving.” This year, she brought her son Braden, 14, to assist the day before. “I just do whatever they want me to do,” he said.
Braden Spath, a senior at Kearney High School, came to help for the first time because his school requires volunteer hours. Justin Dannenberg was here “because it’s fun.”
Laughter even came from BamBe Currie, unofficial co-chair with her husband Marc. They’ve helped serve the dinner for 25 years.
Meanwhile, Kotrous sat in a back room taking calls from people who wanted dinners delivered on Thanksgiving Day. He wrote names and addresses both on a tablet and on sticky notes, which he stuck to a stainless steel freezer so he could devise routes later in the afternoon for the volunteers who would deliver dinners Thursday.
Kotrous now handles publicity for the dinner. “At that first dinner we served 135 people,” he said. Now about 1,400 dinners are served each year, including 700 that are delivered, free. As of noon Wednesday, he’d taken more than 100 calls for carry-out meals.
The KACC committee of 10 people meets weekly, starting in mid-October, to go over the menu, shopping, donations, and more. Nobody is in charge. “It’s a group effort,” Currie said.
Karen Schutte and her husband Don have been committee members since it began. “I’ve got all the recipes written down in case some year I couldn’t be here,” she said, but she has missed just one dinner. That year, she went to Sidney to spend Thanksgiving with her daughter.
“This year, my daughter is coming to Kearney. She’ll fix Thanksgiving dinner while I’m here and have it ready when I get home,” she said.
Many volunteers have come for years, such as Jessica Haight and her mother Tina. They are Kearney natives, but in 2008, Jessica moved to Boston for grad school, and stayed there. Tina moved as well, but they still consider Nebraska home and stay with family when they return. They showed up at Old Town Hall Wednesday to do whatever needed doing.
“This makes me happy. It’s giving back,” Jessica said. She’s been volunteering here with her mother since she was seven years old. “We missed one Thanksgiving here, and it was the worst Thanksgiving we ever had. I said, ‘I’m not missing this again.’”
Dinner preparations are down to a science. The 46 turkeys, the 36 pans of stuffing, 400 pounds of potatoes and more were kept overnight Wednesday in a refrigerated trailer from Cash-Wa Distribution. The turkeys were purchased from a wholesaler.
About a dozen men arrive at Old Town Hall at 3 a.m. Thanksgiving morning to begin roasting turkeys. This year, they worked with heavy hearts because a 20-year volunteer turkey roaster, Jim Jurgensmeyer of Heartwell, passed away a few weeks ago. Jurgensmeyer’s son Alan came from Grand Island to take his place.
Wednesday evening, Schutte took the aprons, towels and rags used by volunteers that day across the street to Karen’s Speed Wash, the laundromat she owns, to wash them so they could be used again Thursday. After the feast, the linens would be returned — unwashed — to the company from which they were rented.
Styrofoam containers for take-out dinners, and plastic forks, knives and spoons, come from Cash-Wa. Volunteers who deliver dinners use their own coolers for transport.
YRTC youth set up and take down tables. About eight volunteers return to the hall to finish cleaning up Friday. Food is brought in for volunteers Wednesday noon, too.
After Wednesday’s lunch, BamBe Currie suddenly remembered that she had to pick up bread crumbs at Family Fresh Market. No problem, she said. “I look forward to this all year. We do this so nobody will be alone for the holiday.”