The cancellation of the annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner because of the pandemic doesn’t come as a surprise to organizer Cheryl Craft. She had first-hand experience with COVID-19 and its dangers over the summer.
“I was upset, but I do totally understand since I had caught COVID in the month of July and was in ICU,” she said. “I’m still recovering and I still get a little winded. I coughed and it affected my lungs. I had no underlying conditions and I still got it.”
Last year, she prepared more than 7,000 meals through dining at the Tree of Life Church, deliveries and take out. She had more than 300 volunteers.
The large dinner qualifies as a mass gathering so it was canceled due to CDC guidelines.
The dinner’s funding from Walmart and local organizations also fell through. Wurstfest’s cancellation also kept local organizations from donating.
“I totally understand, it’s just a lot of things that have happened,” Craft said. “[No] funding, location and the pandemic just affected everything.”
Craft said she hopes she can safely hold it next year and encourages people to mail donations.
She also is searching for a volunteer grant writer and local organizations and companies to donate.
The long-running community dinner fed thousands of elderly residents, families and many experiencing hardships.
It not only provided food but community support and love, Craft said.
To keep the giant feast running, she relied on hundreds of volunteers inside and outside of the kitchen.
Her family, including her son-in-law, cooked while others ran plates, cleaned up tables and delivered meals.
Beth Sparkman, 78, has volunteered since around 2011 managing the kitchen.
“It was absolutely wonderful,” Sparkman said. “All of my kids live in Hawaii and one daughter lives in Austin. My husband passed away and I figured I’d go out and do that.”
Sparkman could not walk around well due to cancer and so she did not volunteer last year and could not this year.
Yet she has a pep in her step now and is ready to help the next one.
“I can go and point fingers and tell people how to do it,” Sparkman laughed. “Put me down for next year. I’ll be around next year, my doctor said I’m pretty healthy for a 78-year-old woman.”
Craft also relied on dozens of local organizations to do preparation.
St. Paul Lutheran Church’s youth group deboned the turkeys and KNBT KGNB held a pie drive at Arlan’s Market to fundraise the dinner.
“Our youth kiddos would help out with deboning the turkey and put together to-go boxes and we would separate the rolls,” St. Paul Lutheran Church’s youth group director, Lynn Lear, said.
Helping with the dinner teaches the kids community service and is one of the “random acts of kindness” activities they do each month.
“That is something that kids are able to do to help out in the community and it’s a win win, they also use that for community service hours for school,” Leal said. “The kids look forward to it every year. We’re sad we couldn’t have it, but count on us next year.”
Families with their own quirky titles gladly pitched in, too. The Smith-Hesters — including New Braunfels High School principal Chris J. Smith — call themselves the “pie family.”
For about 12 years they cut pie and scooped cranberry sauce.
They also delivered meals to Canyon Lake, Craft said.
The “turkey shirt family,” the Vrazels, wear matching turkey shirts and plated the food.
Their first year volunteering, Lisa Vrazel’s niece ordered their famous “turkey shirts.”
“One of my nieces was like ‘Well we had to get shirts if were going to do this!’” Vrazel said. “We help out and my mom stays at home and after we’re all done we go to our mom’s house and all have dinner.”
Vrazel said this dinner would have been their sixth year volunteering.
“It’s fun, you get to meet a whole bunch of different people and lots of people there were with their families and everybody made it so festive and nice for everyone,” Vrazel said.
She said there are about 12 family members and friends who served food on Thanksgiving and a few help set up the day before. They often see the same people over the years and every year people thank the volunteers and have fun as a community.
“It makes you feel good that you’re helping,” Vrazel said.
Comal ISD assistant analyst, David Campos, and his family volunteered for the dinner when it first started.
“My wife and I and our daughter would volunteer when the dinner was held at Westside Community Center in probably the mid-2000s,” Campos said. “My father used to help out when it was first organized for the first few years and he was able to help out then.”
Campos and his wife had two more children and they got to volunteer all together last year at the Tree of Life Church.
They brought along neighbors and their kids and helped debone the turkeys and cook the day before Thanksgiving.
“We were all sitting there in a back room deboning turkeys and it was the first time our children got to do something like that and people were smiling,” Campos said. “And seeing other volunteers made you feel good about yourself knowing you were able to take some time out of the holiday season to help others in need.”
Although it was cancelled, Campos said he looks forward to his family helping out at the next one.
“We understand the whole situation,” Campos said. “We were just looking forward to this because this particular time in the amount of differences there are in not only the country but our community — this was something that could’ve brought us together again and have those feelings to volunteer for something special.”
To contact about funding the event as a local organization or company or to grant write call Cheryl Craft at 830-708-0386 or contact via Facebook https://m.facebook.com/NewBraunfelsCommunityThanksgivingDinner/
To mail donations for next year’s dinner, mail to: New Braunfels Thanksgiving Dinner, PO Box 31053, New Braunfels, TX, 78131