OTTUMWA — The annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner has certain rhythms that volunteers learn to use to their advantage. Amid the clanging of pans being moved and washed, there’s an order.

The first one, though, is that if you’re not working on something, make way for those who are. There are a lot more hands waiting just before the meal starts than there are spots to prepare. When coolers and insulated bags stacked high near one door, the deliveries are largely complete, and it’s a matter of getting ready to serve the people who came to share the day’s meal.

For Mary Margaret Butler, being involved is a tradition. It’s also a chance to remind people about Whatsoever You Do, the organization in the middle of transforming a former church into a shelter. The work is coming along, though Butler said the focus is on getting things done the right way the first time.

“We’re doing really well,” she said. “A lot of people are anxious to get it opened, but we need to do it step by step.”

Grant writing takes time, and it can be hard not to try to rush. But debt is dangerous for nonprofit organizations. It’s critical that things proceed at a sustainable pace in order to lay the foundation for long-term success.

For Betty Aalbers, Thanksgiving has long meant lending a hand with the dinner. Her hair was dyed light purple to match a shirt with the words “What happens in the kitchen stays in the kitchen” on the back.

Aalbers was quick to laugh about it, though Aalbers — a self-described veteran of the dinners — very serious about helping out. As the service approached she distributed gloves to the people who would be handling the food.

“I guess it’s just giving back to the community,” she said. “They’ve given a lot to us.”

Other volunteers have said much the same over the years. Few, including Aalbers, are quick to take credit. “There are other people who have been helping longer than me,” she said.

That may be true, but operations like the community dinner rely on people coming back to help year in and year out. Whether it’s someone’s second year or their 22nd, the experience helps. It’s hard to pull off a dinner that serves several hundred people in-house and delivers more than 2,800 meals to people at their homes.

As the meal approached, Aalbers stuck her head into the kitchen. The noise slowed, then stopped for the blessing. The chatter died away and, for the first time in several hours, it was quiet.

It didn’t take long for things to pick back up once meals began being served. But there was a little less as people ate. And, thanks to volunteers, they had another year of eating as a community.

Matt Milner can be reached at and followed on Twitter @mwmilner


Managing Editor

Matt Milner currently serves as the Courier's Managing Editor. Milner is a trained weather spotter and is usually outside if there are storms. He joined the Courier in 2002.

Recommended for you