About 25 years ago, cooks prepped for 350 people to feast at the Durango Community Thanksgiving Dinner. This year, more than 1,300 plates were served.
The crowd that started filing in at 11 a.m. created a line that stretched the width of the La Plata County Exhibit Hall and included many first-timers, visitors, seniors and families.
Keith “Kassidy” Byington, who led food preparation, said the event is a genuine reflection of Durango because those in need enjoy dinner with those who have plenty.
“I understand the need. I used to be one of those in need,” he said.
About 240 volunteers helped with the event that has been in the works since October, said Gordon Clouser, volunteer coordinator. But the prep work ramped up on Wednesday in the kitchen at the Exhibit Hall where the air was thick with the smell of turkey, as volunteers carved up birds cooked by La Plata County Jail, Mercy Regional Hospital and several local restaurants.
Clouser was among those wielding knifes in the kitchen after scheduling deliveries to some of the more than 110 people who had dinner taken to them by a volunteer. He has been involved in the dinner since the 1990s when he started delivering food.
“I think this is the best thing Durango does,” he said. It even tops Snowdown, he said.
Starr Whitney and Romelle Maloney, skipped the turkey de-boning to arrange and neatly fluff more than 40 cheerful table centerpieces on Wednesday.
It’s a labor of love for the two volunteers.
“This holiday, it’s the only holiday that hasn’t been wrecked,” said Whitney, a former florist, who went on to explain that you can’t wreck gratitude.
Thursday morning, more than enough people showed up to prepare the hall.
“We had so many volunteers, they started turning them away,” volunteer Jane Marenette said.
Among those who came was Sue Berkhahn, who recently moved back to Durango after several years living elsewhere. She was motivated to come after noticing the an increasingly visible homeless population in Durango.
“There’s so many needy people, and I have so much,” she said.
After this event, she plans to continue working with other efforts to help homeless people.
The dedication of the volunteers impressed many diners who attended the community dinner for the first time, including Osvalmig Costillo Ramos, who started celebrating Thanksgiving after he moved to Durango from Cuba eight years ago. It took him about three years to understand American culture before he began to appreciate Thanksgiving and the friends celebrating with him.
“Now my family is here,” he said.
Many people who started the day at the community dinner had plans to celebrate again with family and friends.
Terry Stalker and her husband dropped off a pie at the fairgrounds and then met friends at the Mahogany Grille at Strater Hotel for their dinner.
They were some of the estimated 400 to 550 people expected to enjoy the buffet Thursday, said Michelle Thom, general manager for the hotel. The crowd that comes for dinner at the restaurant is generally split evenly between locals and visitors, she said.
For Stalker, after more than 20 years of cooking Thanksgiving dinner for her family and children, it was a change but still special.
“It’s definitely more relaxed,” she said, of eating out.
Chris and Karen Sorensen, who are Utah residents, also dined at the Mahogany Grille with their family.
“It’s fun to go out and not have the mess,” she said.
But the family still bought pie and turkey to have later.
“It’s what Thanksgiving is all about – the leftovers,” she said.