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Giving the Gift of Thanksgiving

By Dorothy Bliskey

On Thanksgiving Day, Jan White of Waupun orchestrates a holiday meal of epic proportions – 100 pounds of turkey, 35 pies, 70 pounds of mashed potatoes and three massive roasters full of her late grandfather’s famous dressing. More than 200 area residents flock to her church, Pella Lutheran in Waupun, to partake in the free community event Jan initiated 23 years ago.

“These are people who may not have a place to go on Thanksgiving or who possibly aren’t even able to prepare a meal,” Jan said, noting 40 volunteers and her co-chair Heidi Wardin help her create the special day each year.

Almost 23 years ago Jan approached the pastor at her church, telling him about her idea to create a free Thanksgiving meal for those alone or in need. “He liked the idea and helped me promote it,” Jan said. “The event has grown bigger every year.”

The day begins about 7a.m. when volunteers begin arriving to peel potatoes and make the dressing and gravy. Turkeys, which have been pre-roasted and carved in the homes of volunteers – are arranged on platters to be served family style at the tables.

Volunteers have lovingly prepared salads and spent time baking pies in their homes for the festive meal.

There is no such thing as cutting corners with this Thanksgiving dinner. “Everything is made from scratch,” White said. “Our potatoes are fresh rather than instant and we use real cream, real butter and whole turkeys that are slowly roasted in volunteers’ homes.”

In fact, the turkey gravy is made at the church with the browned turkey drippings saved from the roasted turkeys. The turkey drippings, when combined with the drained water from the boiled potatoes, results in the best gravy on earth.

“My cousin from Milwaukee makes the gravy,” Jan said, noting her aunt used to be the gravy-maker and then her cousin took over. “The workers fondly call him gravy boy, but he’s in his 40s now,” Jan chuckled.

A special family recipe for turkey dressing, created by Jan’s late grandfather and improved on by her aunt, is a big hit every year. Several roasters filled with the popular item are made by Jan and her volunteers.

“The dressing is very special and our family loves sharing it with all who attend,” Jan said, noting her aunt wants to keep the recipe a secret. “She is willing to reveal one main ingredient though — a good supply of day-old hard rolls.”

Traditional favorites round out the dinner menu — cranberry sauce, baked squash, fresh peas, gelatin salads, rolls, and homemade pies consisting of apple, pecan, pumpkin and mincemeat.

“We get several homemade pies from the Randolph Christian School,” Jan said. “It’s an important fund-raiser for that school. We purchase the pies, along with some from the nearby Dooley Apple Orchard and bake them in our homes.”

All pumpkin pies, however, are made by Lois Ramthun, a volunteer from Waupun. “The amazing thing is she makes them all the day before Thanksgiving,” Jan said.

Volunteers from Pella Church and the community combine their efforts to make the event a success – working busily in their own kitchens prior to the event and also volunteering at the Thanksgiving Day dinner that begins at 12 noon.

“This event wouldn’t happen if not for the volunteers who so lovingly give of their time and talent,” Jan said, noting some have volunteered since the event’s inception.

Sylvia Hermann, 92, and Edna Heilmeyer, 90, are two longtime Pella Church members who have been volunteering to peel potatoes and other tasks throughout the 23 years. Although Sylvia recently gave up potato-peeling duties, she continues to create all the table centerpieces and table favors in the comfort of her dining room. “Each year I come up with a different design, but I always make sure each person has a nice little table favor that contains candy corn and candy pumpkins.”

After the early morning crew winds down, about mid-morning, Jan shares a treat with them. “She always surprises us with something special to have with our coffee,” Sylvia said. “Jan is wonderful, and helping her with this meal is so enjoyable. We’re like one big family.”

Seasoned at the art of peeling potatoes, Edna Heilmeyer is one of about six volunteers who begin the process about 7a.m. the morning of the event. “There are lots of potatoes to peel – about 50 pounds,” she said. “Everyone does their part. It’s not really difficult. It’s fun. Later, after we’ve placed all the hot food on the tables for our guests, we get to sit down and eat, too.”

While Jan has praise for all the volunteers, feelings are mutual. Sandy Bowe, a longtime volunteer who has roasted turkeys and prepared salads in her home over the years, refers to Jan as extremely caring and organized. “She owns a business in town – Jan’s Optical – and knows a lot of people from the area who are willing to help with the event,” Bowe said, adding that she has known Jan since she was a little girl. “She is an exceptional person and is always there to help others. Because of the kind of person she is, I continue to help.”

“The outpouring of support and compassion from the members of Pella and other volunteers makes this a labor of love,” Jan said. “Seeing how appreciative our dinner guests are is so gratifying. When we hear the stories of why they are here and how grateful they are, we often get tears in our eyes. Knowing that many of the folks who attend might otherwise be home alone or settling for a TV dinner instead of dining with us makes it all worth the effort. Our aim is to make Thanksgiving Day special for others – in the process it makes us thankful that we can do this.”

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