A small army of men and women crowded the kitchen in the basement of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church on Wednesday night. Many carved piping hot, golden brown turkeys, fresh from the oven. Others took to chopping celery for stuffing or straining broth for homemade gravy.On a weekly basis, the church basement is the site of post-mass gatherings where coffee and doughnuts are served. But each year on the day before Thanksgiving, it is taken over by members of the Knights of Columbus and other volunteers who use it as a home base for preparing and assembling hundreds of meals delivered the following day to Camas-Washougal residents in need.
For the past 29 years, Al Schmid, 75, has led the coordination of this annual effort, which actually starts with logistical planning — securing donations and volunteers — in early October.
The longtime Washougal resident is quick to point out that making the large-scale effort happen year-after-year takes the volunteer efforts of many individuals, including members of the church and others from the greater Camas-Washougal community.
“It’s not a religious thing we are doing,” Schmid said. “It’s a community thing.”
On Thanksgiving morning, people line up at the church to deliver the meals. Each dinner contains enough servings of warm turkey, stuffing, potatoes, rolls and gravy, as well as salad and pie for every person in each household, which ranges in size from 1 to 12 family members.
“It’s all ready to eat,” Schmid said.
Originally, the Knights of Columbus prepared and served the Thanksgiving dinner at the Washougal senior center, and delivered meals to homebound residents as well. It was later moved over to St. Thomas Aquinas in Camas, and now all meals are taken directly to local doorsteps. Names of families in need come primarily from the Inter-Faith Treasure House and the East County Family Resource Center.
“I enjoy doing it,” said the soft-spoken and humble Schmid. “People like that we do it. It has just kept growing and growing.”
Schmid commented that he is very thankful for the donations of money, food and time from local families and individuals, as well as organizations like the Soroptimists and the Washougal Volunteer Firefighters.
This year the meals served approximately 520 people — an increase of about 70 from 2012. The number has been as high as 550 in years past. No matter what the need, Schmid said, there is always enough food for everyone who requests a dinner.
“The guy upstairs takes care of it,” he said, adding that any extra food is donated to Share House in Vancouver.
Washougal residents and St. Thomas members Lora and Michael Rollins and their daughter Isabella, 12, helped with preparation of the meals on Wednesday night, as well as the delivery on Thursday morning after mass. It’s become an annual tradition for the family.
“From the first time we delivered meals, we thought it was important,” Lora Rollins said. “It’s a way to serve the community, and be thankful for what we have.”
Father Matthew Oakland pitched in as well on Wednesday night, although he admitted to leaving duties like carving the turkeys to the “experts.”
He said the Knights of Columbus Thanksgiving dinner is an example of neighbors helping neighbors.
“It’s a great need, and it’s a wonderful thing that we as a community come together to meet that need,” he said. “There are a lot of dedicated people. It’s great to see that spirit of generosity. It’s a gift of love.”