by Caitlin Huston
Lines snaked down the hallway of River of Life Christian Church yesterday afternoon as hundreds of people waited for their Thanksgiving dinner.
River of Life at 130 Mall Road celebrated its 44th year of preparing free Thanksgiving meals for the community. Volunteers said this year had one of the biggest turnouts in memory, with meals planned for more than 600 people.
Though the festivities commenced Thursday afternoon, volunteers planned the meal well in advance.
Jane Kollmar, a church member and volunteer, said the volunteers start cooking the meal the Sunday before, with church members taking home at least one of the 27 turkeys and cooking it beforehand.
Kollmar, who estimated she was one of about 150 volunteers, started her day at 6:30 a.m. as she arrived at the church to heat up the prepared food.
In total, Connie Kiesling, a volunteer coordinator, estimated that the church had 50 loaves of bread, 35 pies and large numbers of sides and cakes. A portion of the food is donated from nearby businesses and clubs, while other church members furnish the rest.
Kollmar said she has volunteered for 28 years and continues to do it, along with her entire family, because she enjoys helping the community.
“It’s the most rewarding thing I do all year,” Kollmar said.
Marsha Iles, another volunteer coordinator, said this year’s dinner had the most people she’d seen at the event in her 23 years of volunteering.
“I’ve never seen a line this long before,” Iles said.
Kiesing, who’s family has volunteered for the event since its inception, said the turnout was “mind-boggling” and “thrilling.”
She said the event would go on Thursday “until there’s nobody here.”
In addition to the crowded tables at the church Thursday, the Rev. W. Frank Hibbard said volunteers had also prepared more than 350 meals for carry-out, which they either delivered Thursday morning or held for pickup.
Hibbard said the dinner is only able to run smoothly because of the volunteers.
“I have always been fascinated by this church’s well-oiled machinery,” Hibbard said.
Hibbard, who plans to retire at the end of December but intends to return to help out with the dinner, said this year’s event had a lot of newcomers.
“There are some repeats, but there are a lot of new faces that I’ve never seen before,” Hibbard said.
Karen Severyn, a native of the area, said she drove 14 hours from New Jersey to volunteer and attend the dinner.
“Sandy blew us this way,” Severyn said.
Severyn and her husband Rick wanted to return to their home church and escape the aftermath of the storm, she said.
Pat Wright, another attendee, said she enjoyed the fellowship and the food.
“The food was good, especially the pie,” Wright said.
Caitlin Huston is a staff reporter of the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at 574-732-5148 or firstname.lastname@example.org.