Community & Comfort Food

Volunteers Serve Free Thanksgiving Meal at Oakridge United Methodist

Story and photos by Craig Reed

Judy Hampton, left, and Cathy Spencer prepare to serve more than 100 people during the Thanksgiving dinner at Oakridge United Methodist.

When Don and Judy Hampton were planning their Thanksgiving dinner, they decided it was best to share rather than the 2 of them sitting down to eat alone at home.

It was 1993. Through their church, Oakridge United Methodist, the couple organized and coordinated a dinner on Thanksgiving Day, serving 75 sit-down meals at the church and sending out 40 to-go meals.

This year, that annual dinner event will be celebrating its 30th year. Judy and fellow volunteer Cathy Spencer anticipate serving 125 to 150 meals at the church and sending out several more to-go meals.

Judy is proud the dinner has continued through the years. She was the leader of the volunteer effort for 25 years. Don was a key helper until he died in 2013.

“We know this community has food insecurity,” says Judy, a 75-year-old retired teacher, counselor and administrator in the Oakland School District. “We wanted to do something for our community. Our son had graduated and left home. We just decided it was best to share Thanksgiving with as many people as we could through the church.”

Cathy, a 66-year-old retired Oakridge teacher, has been a volunteer with the event since the beginning. She replaced Judy as the event leader 5 years ago.

“I can’t stand for people to be hungry,” Cathy says. “Getting together, having a good time together, people making connections promotes a community spirit that is good for the whole community.”

Judy started the annual tradition with her late husband, Don, in 1993.

The Thanksgiving dinner of turkey, mash potatoes, a vegetable and pumpkin bars is served between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day in the church’s fellowship hall. There is no charge, and there is no donation jar at the door.

“We don’t want people to think they have to donate to get a meal,” Judy says. “We serve anyone who walks in the door.”

Volunteers will deliver meals to those who can’t get to the church and who call in advance for home delivery.

Marietta Thompson, a 14-year resident of Oakridge who has been a domestic violence advocate and now volunteers with the dinner event, says there is a need.

“If you’re not able to get together with family or you’re not wanting to fix dinner for just one or two people, this dinner provides you with a place to talk and celebrate.” – Ken Wright

“Everybody from young families with small kids to the elderly need help with providing for food stability,” she says.

Ken Wright, a retired registered nurse and a dinner volunteer, says Thanksgiving is a time when people should be together.

“If you’re not able to get together with family or you’re not wanting to fix dinner for just 1 or 2 people, this dinner provides you with a place to talk and celebrate,” he says. “There’s good food, but also an important social aspect to the dinner.”

Cathy and Judy say putting the work into the dinner is “the right thing to do.” They emphasize religion is not part of the event.

“It’s just a dinner that happens to be held at the church,” Judy says.

“We have to be there for each other in our community,” Cathy adds.

Work starts well in advance of Thanksgiving Day. Letters are sent throughout the community and surrounding areas, asking people and businesses to donate their time or to make financial donations. Lane Electric Cooperative has been a longtime financial donor.

“We’ve never not had enough money to buy food, but it’s been slim pickins’ sometimes,” Judy says. “Most donations are under $100.”

Food is bought in bulk from Oakridge, Springfield, and Eugene sources. The cooks have food handler cards, and the church kitchen is licensed by Lane County to meet restaurant requirements.

Volunteers chop and cook vegetables, peel, cook and mash potatoes, and cook the turkey a day or 2 in advance. The food is reheated for serving on Thanksgiving Day.

“We’ll take as many volunteers as we can get,” Judy says. “People to set up, to serve, to talk to the guests, to clean up and to deliver meals to those who call in advance for delivery. Volunteers are needed the week before and the day of.”

Some of those volunteers are family members of Cathy and Judy. Cathy’s husband, mother, sisters-in-law, son and daughter-in-law have helped. Judy’s son and family have helped.

Cathy’s family celebrates the holiday the Saturday after Thanksgiving “because we’re busy on Thanksgiving Day,” she says.

Back when they worked for the Oakridge School District, Judy and Cathy saw kids who weren’t getting enough to eat. Their church has put together snack packs and delivered them to the school district for distribution to students in need. The church also has a food pantry, but it can’t keep up with the need.

“We’ve seen kids hungry, but it’s not their fault,” Judy says. “I don’t want adults or kids to go hungry. This church needs to be a good community steward, and we often do that through food such as the Thanksgiving dinner.”