Volunteers fill stomachs and hearts on Thanksgiving

achristnovich@islandpacket.comNovember 22, 2012 

For many, Thanksgiving is celebrated with family, feasting and football.

For hundreds who volunteer with two area church groups, however, it's a day to trade a spot on the couch for a chance to help feed thousands.

Free feasts were served to the public Thursday afternoon at The Parish Church of St. Helena in Beaufort and at Hudson's Restaurant on Hilton Head Island, and event coordinators estimated they would feed 1,000 and 1,400 people, respectively.

Volunteers buzzed industriously around kitchens and through doorways, each focused on an assigned task -- clearing dishes, refilling drinks or scooping holiday fare onto plates.

Many burned more calories than they consumed but said the feeling of serving others was more fulfilling than turkey and gravy.

"When (Thanksgiving's) at home for family, it's a smaller event," Jane TenEyck , a 15-year volunteer for St. Helena Church's feast, said. "This just makes your family bigger."

The St. Helena Church has dished up deliciously traditional cuisine for 33 years, but for the past 12, one volunteer has added a colorful twist.

Tux the Clown -- also known as John Craig -- shows up for dinner sporting a bright red nose and with the pockets of his rainbow-striped pants bursting with balloons. Craig, who lives in Beaufort, provides entertainment for youngsters while they wait in line and distracts antsy kids while their parents finish eating.

Children all over the room ate their Thanksgiving dinner in the company of balloon parrots, poodles and eccentic hats.

"I've been a clown for more than 20 years," Craig said. "I just came to see if it fit... kids like it, but adults need it too."

ON HILTON HEAD

In the southern half of the county at Hudson's Restaurant, a 450-strong volunteer army helped serve 94 turkeys and hundreds of pounds of sides. The feast is sponsored by St. Andrew's By the Sea United Methodist Church, and Hudson's provides the restaurant, kitchen and some cooking staff.

Now in its 14th year, the Hudson's event draws both volunteers and hungry mouths from across the country.

Volunteer Bob Gentzler of Hilton Head greeted each feaster at the door, lone diners and groups of up to 14 alike. This year, his tally included visitors from 33 states and 11 countries, including Japan, Finland, Peru and Honduras.

"It's interesting to see how people respond when you ask them where their hometown is," he said.

Although the meal is free, plastic donation jugs were available on each table. Any proceeds will go to the Deep Well charity of Hilton Head, created to help needy families.

Back in the belly of Hudson's kitchen, Hilton Head's Beverly Ohemeng worked to plate thick slices of turkey for the servers to deliver. She's said she's volunteered for 12 of the feasts, and each year, she looks forward to seeing her fellow helpers, some traveling from as far away as Tennessee. Although Thanksgiving is a holiday that revolves around food, the volunteers agree their work isn't just about satisfying taste buds.

"What is the most important thing?" Ohemeng said, as a server sang out for another bowl of stuffing. "It's about serving others."

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