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Turkeyfest brings community together, remembers less fortunate

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December Past

Omaha, NE – Turkeyfest started more than 25 years ago when each member of the Heartland Pioneers, a volunteer group in Omaha, would cook a turkey and fixings and deliver them to senior citizens in need around Omaha.

Turkeyfest has grown over the years, from serving 300 meals 20 years ago, to more than 1,500 this year. The Heartland Pioneers also developed a partnership over the years with the Salvation Army.

Director of Senior Services at the Salvation Army, D.D. Launderville, said that partnership has proved beneficial to the entire community. She said it starts with the helpers that prepare the food at the Kroc Center in South Omaha.

“That group that puts together the food on Wednesday night from the pioneers, they are so dedicated,” Launderville said. “The same group, the same people show up every year and they love doing it. There is such ownership in what they do. They put together this delicious meal, they can see it being put together and then they come the next day and then they serve it.”

Volunteers prepare to serve food early on Thanksgiving Day. (Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

Volunteers prepare to serve food early on Thanksgiving Day. (Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

Launderville said seniors in the Omaha area apply and register for Turkeyfest annually. She compared all the work that goes into Turkeyfest to an orchestra playing a symphony.

“Everything has got their own pieces and their own times. And I just sit there and pray it goes well, and it usually does,” Launderville said.

Douglas Thoms, a member of the Heartland Pioneers, said he has been volunteering for Turkeyfest for nearly 20 years. He said he has gotten his kids and grand-kids into the mix as well.

“My grand-kids are here today helping, so it is like a family affair and it kind of funnels down to my kids and my kids are teaching their kids that there are people out there who are less fortunate than them and it is great to help people out,” Thoms said.

Thoms said he has made it a point to serve the underprivileged and he thinks it has caught on with his family.

Douglas Thoms (center) helps slice and de-bone turkeys. (Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

Douglas Thoms (center) helps slice and de-bone turkeys. (Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

“We have done working in the kitchen, we have done filling the bags, and the next step we are going to do with the grand-kids is actually take them out with a driver,” Thoms said. “I think that filtering down effect really helps so that when they get older they will continue to help people.”

About 20 volunteers helped prepare food Wednesday night. They cut onions, celery and bread for dressing. Helpers also deboned dozens of turkeys and weighed them out in 10 pound batches for overnight baking. Finally around 8:30 after packing away all the food in ovens, cleaning dishes and sweeping and mopping the kitchen, the workers packed it up for the night.

But by 5 a.m. Thursday the kitchen was back up and running at full steam. Gravy and mashed potatoes were being freshly made as was the cranberry sauce.

Jerry Golmanavich has been a volunteer for the Heartland Pioneers for the past 20 years. He was one of the first volunteers to return Thursday morning and he was full of enthusiasm.

“None of the people here are paid okay? Where the motivation comes from, I don’t know,” Golmanavich said. “I’ve never questioned it. A lot of people may not get to realize what a great community we have here in Omaha. We moved here in 1983 and we felt welcomed from the second day we moved here. I mean it’s amazing; it’s the greatest thing that’s happened to me and my wife.“

Once the food was fully cooked, plated and ready for delivery, even more volunteers showed up to the Kroc Center to help distribute the meals. More than 160 drivers delivered food to seniors throughout the Omaha area.

I rode along with a couple of volunteers stopping at three senior living facilities north of Dodge Street. We met more than a dozen seniors, all with gleaming smiles from ear to ear.

Helpers ready aprons and ladles in preparation fro Turkeyfest. (Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

Helpers ready aprons and ladles in preparation fro Turkeyfest. (Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

“The drivers are usually families; their own meal is in the oven,” Launderville said. “This is a way to give back to the community. And it is just so meaningful and again it is rich you can’t beat those memories.”

Launderville said every year she gets numerous calls and thank you letters from recipients of the Turkeyfest meals.

“Sometimes I have people cry because they got a meal,” Launderville said. We have so much tradition in Thanksgiving and the family the memories, it’s just there and not to celebrate it that’s hard, that’s depressive. You are truly alone if you have nobody that won’t even recognize you on thanksgiving or invite you out. So our meal is that chance to get back in touch with memories, with loved ones, they are getting a hot nutritious meal. And somebody thought of them.”

Launderville said the demand for Turkeyfest meals and volunteers continues to grow after all these years. She said the Salvation Army is determined to continue to serve what she calls a forgotten part of our society, the elderly.