Turkey and all the fixings are served during the Community Volunteer Program’s Free Thanksgiving Dinner on Thanksgiving day. (Mark Wilson Photo)
Diners and volunteers trickle in and out of the front door of Veterans Memorial Hall on North Montana Avenue shortly after noon on Thanksgiving Day.
About 200 sit inside the American Legion venue, munching on turkey, mashed potatoes, pies and other seasonal treats at the annual Free Thanksgiving Dinner organized [auth] for more than 20 years by Johnny Gonzales.
Roswell resident Augustine Alvarado, 83, has attended the meal for the past three or four years “mostly for the fellowship,” he said.
“I get to see a lot of people that I haven’t seen for a long time,” he said.
Free Thanksgiving at the legion is one of the most well-known and well-attended free meal events in Roswell on the day of giving thanks — but it isn’t the only one.
Salvation Army annually delivers meals to low-income families and the elderly and disabled. Sale Barn Cafe on North Garden Avenue has offered free Thanksgiving meals for the past five years.
Valerie Sanchez, owner and manager of the cafe, started cooking dishes based on her grandmother’s recipes on Monday for the meal that started at 11 a.m. yesterday.
“My favorite thing about doing it is I get to give back and I get to see the smile on people’s faces,” she said.
Sanchez said the free meal started as a dream of hers when she was young and working as a dish washer in a restaurant. Sharing the dinner has become a tradition for her family.
“This is how we do our own Thanksgiving — with our community,” she said.
Her husband, aunt, uncle, three young daughters and a close friend joined the feast, in addition to new and returning guests.
Jerry Gogh, 65 and his father, Douglas Linney, 85, both of Roswell, were taking their Thanksgiving meal at the cafe for the third year in a row.
“The food’s so good,” said Linney. “Well-prepared. Nice people.”
Sanchez said she feeds about 25 to 30 people each year before taking remaining food out to the community to give to the homeless.
At 11:30 a.m. yesterday, about 15 guests were sitting down to dinner at the cafe.
Like the legion event across town, anyone who walks through the door of the cafe is welcome to sit down for a bite.
Free Thanksgiving Dinner saw about 700 guests between its 11 a.m. commencement and 12:30 p.m., with another hour and a half of feasting to go, according to Gonzales.
He said that by the midway point of the occasion, 150 volunteers had arrived to serve food and clean. He said the volunteers packed up at least 300 meals to carry out to people unable to attend due to illness or other mobility issues.
“This place has been packed all day long,” he said.
He said he wanted to thank Roswell for all of its help in getting the event together. The event relied on food donations from churches, schools, businesses and individuals throughout the city.
Aside from edible sustenance, the occasion served up live music, door prizes and Christian-themed quiz games.
Mariachi singer Elida Juarez, a former real estate agent of Hobbs, was one of several musicians performing at Free Thanksgiving. This was her first year to attend.
“It’s wonderful. I admire all these people,” she said of volunteers. “They’re serving the Lord.”
Ally Simons, who runs Red Hen Bakery in Roswell, cleaned and served food at the event with her daughter and daughter’s cousin. She said she wanted her young relatives to learn through action the importance of helping others.
“Just telling them doesn’t show them,” she said. “They have to see it for themselves.”
Simon’s daughter, Gateway Christian School sixth- grader Grace Turner, 11, said volunteering was “pretty fun.”
“To me it’s fun because when I serve people (…) they know that people care for them, that people love them for who they are,” she said.