A former O’Fallon resident, evacuated because of the California wildfires, returned to her mother’s home for Thanksgiving this year. Grateful that her home was spared and wanting her children to realize that they have much to be thankful for, she volunteered to help at the Community Thanksgiving Dinner.
But unfortunately, organizer Linda Benedick had to turn her down, because they had enough volunteers. So, the woman and her children instead dropped off food donations to help with the meal.
That Pay It Forward gesture is one Benedick has often seen in the five years that the annual dinner – open invitation to anyone – has been served. She said their effort is blessed with many donations and volunteers.
“We don’t want people to be alone,” she said. “We try to reach everybody. We don’t have any restrictions,” Benedick said.
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It has grown over the years. This year, more than 90 volunteers worked for two days on the Community Thanksgiving Meal served to 226 people on Nov. 22 at Faith Lutheran Church.
A group of local citizens, businesses, and civic groups produce the holiday feast. Churches of different faiths also join that spirit of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, with pilgrims and Native Americans.
“I would really like to thank all of our volunteers who make it a success, as well as all the donors who either gave food, money and their time,” Benedick said. “Also, the city of O’Fallon, village of Shiloh, O’Fallon Township and Faith Lutheran Church for their overwhelming support.”
Benedick is quick to point out that she and her family don’t want to be singled out, for there are so many people who help. “You can give credit to everyone else,” she said.
“We are not associated with any one church or organization. When I started five years ago, I contacted family and friends to help, and additional people started volunteering. So many people wanted to help. We may have started it, and got the ball rolling, but this has been a community effort,” she said.
“I want to thank the group of friends and family who help me get this organized months before we even begin to cook,” she said.
People contribute their skills, talents and time in a spirit of giving.
“I wanted to get people who knew what they were doing, because feeding a lot of people was beyond my expertise,” she said. “It’s very rewarding. People love helping. There is a lot of variety among our volunteers.”
For instance, volunteers include an accountant who handles the bookkeeping, someone who used to cook for large groups, and another person familiar with event-planning.
Benedick went to her church, Faith Lutheran, with the idea, and they agreed to allow use of their kitchen and assembly room.
“We send letters to organizations and businesses, asking for donations and items. Individuals also donate. We get so much support from the community,” she said.
O’Fallon Boy Scout Troop 94, whose leader is Jeff Bevirt, assists every year. “They are a big help,” she said.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints in O’Fallon provides almost all of the desserts,” she said.
Both the village of Shiloh and the city of O’Fallon donate and promote the event, she said.
“These types of events are great for O’Fallon. I encourage all those who may be hungry, lonely, or are not able to afford a Thanksgiving meal to come and enjoy a full stomach while spending time with others in the O’Fallon community,” O’Fallon Mayor Herb Roach said.
Benedick said many families are spread out at holidays, and sometimes, they must choose whether they go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, or maybe no family is around.
“So, they can come here and have a hot meal. They can be more at ease and enjoy being with people. And they have an opportunity to make a new friend,” she said.
Volunteers work on food preparation on Wednesday and Thursday morning, then provide service and cleaning Thanksgiving Day.
Anyone attending gets served the traditional meal, she said.
“We get compliments, people enjoy it. We serve them. They don’t have to go through a buffet line. It makes them feel special for the day. We think it makes a big difference,” Benedick said.
They also deliver a limited number of meals to shut-ins, and all the first responders on duty in O’Fallon and Shiloh are treated to dinner.
Benedick and her husband, Thomas, have four children and six grandchildren. When the older children married and went to their in-law’s families, Linda said she, Tom and two sons began volunteering at a community dinner in Belleville.
After a few years, she thought: “We should do this in O’Fallon.”
Therefore, she asked, and people responded.
“It reaches so many people, and that’s important as a community to do this. It’s very rewarding,”
Born and raised in O’Fallon, and now a resident of Shiloh, Benedick said watching everyone coming together in a big-picture “Friendsgiving” is very gratifying.
“I have roots here.”
Anything left over that hasn’t been cooked is given to the O’Fallon Community Food Pantry. Any leftover prepared food is taken to a women’s crisis center in Washington Park.
“We don’t let anything go to waste,” she said.
How to help
Each year, food and monetary donations are dropped off at Benedick Title Insurance, 1004 S. Lincoln Ave., Ste. 9. Monetary donations must be made payable to the O’Fallon Community Food Pantry.
For those who are interested in volunteering or donating in the future, or for more information, contact Linda Benedick at 618-632-8401 or email at.