First United Methodist Church in Elgin brimmed with good food Thursday for its debut as the host venue for a free Thanksgiving Day meal served to anyone who wanted it.
At least 1,200 visitors were expected for the fourth annual community dinner, which featured two serving stations with turkey, green bean casserole, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and more from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Those who left enough room had their pick of roughly 2,500 plates of scrumptious desserts donated by home cooks and businesses.
Lead organizer Jeff Turner, owner of In the Neighborhood delicatessen, and others staged the meal. Turner said he decided it should be billed as a community meal and not just for the less fortunate or homeless when his son recognized a boy and his family who had a place to live at a previous gathering.
"That told me that there's more people that need this," Turner said. "It's a community. I wanted to get the whole community together, so yes, anybody is invited and it's totally free. I just want people to come down and meet each other and share a meal and fellowship."
Elgin's Hemmens Cultural Center had been the Thanksgiving Day meal spot for three years, but volunteer organizers were forced to look elsewhere after the city decided it no longer would waive its facility rental fee for community groups. Organizers said a roughly $2,500 rental charge would have doubled the expenses for Thursday's feast.
But good news came to the volunteers when First United Methodist Church offered its basement without charge. It turned out to be a cozy, inviting place where pumpkins and fresh bread adorned each table.
Carleton Rogers Jr., son of the church's late longtime pastor, said it was fitting for First United to open its doors for the dinner. He said he believed everything was running smoothly for the debut at the church.
"Our mission is missions," Rogers said. "And we consider this a very important mission."
Scores of volunteers worked in the basement by doing everything from refilling coffee cups to dishing out the food, while others greeted guests at the door and showed them to the basement. Among the volunteers was Mark Novelli, who brought about a dozen helpers from his Wing Park neighborhood.
"I think it's really important to us because we live in an area where there's a lot of needs, especially on a day like Thanksgiving, to give back," said Novelli, whose young children assisted with desserts and coloring placements for the tables.
Turner said about 1,000 pounds of turkey was prepared for the meal, plus 300 pounds of russet potatoes and 200 pounds of sweet potatoes. He said there was enough food for 1,500 guests and that leftovers would be packaged so nothing is wasted.