FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — Most people would balk at the idea of preparing even a small meal for close to 200 people, let alone a traditional Thanksgiving dinner complete with all of the fixings, coffee and dessert.
And performing such a daunting task for people who aren’t family members? It would be a challenge many would leave to someone else.
But that has never been the attitude in Fort Fairfield, where for more than 25 years, a number of veterans and community groups have joined forces every Thanksgiving to organize a free dinner for the community.
Even though the event takes a wealth of volunteers and approximately two months to organize, those who have helped put it together year after year say it is one of the best ways to spend Thanksgiving.
“I do this because community is very important to me,” said Tony Levesque, a member of the Fort Fairfield Knights of Columbus and one of the organizers of the dinner. “When you look around this room and you see everyone and they are so happy to be here, and they are smiling and socializing, and you realize that without this, they might have spent Thanksgiving alone, it really warms your heart.”
More than 80 people came to Fort Fairfield VFW hall for the feast, which was organized by Fort Fairfield Knights of Columbus, VFW and Fort Fairfield Rotary Club. Most of the diners were elderly, who happily ate, sang and conversed as volunteers served them steaming plates of turkey, squash, mashed potatoes, gravy, rolls, peas and pie.
More than 40 volunteers were on hand to help set up, serve and clean up. Some of the servers were members of the Fort Fairfield High School girls basketball team, and officers from the Fort Fairfield Police Department who were on duty that day also turned out to help.
Much of the food was donated or purchased by the organizers. Preparation of the actual meal began Monday, and the cooking started at 7 a.m. Thursday. Before diners began arriving at the hall, volunteers took to the streets to deliver close to 100 meals to people who could not make it out of their homes.
“We do everything we can to make sure that everyone who wants a dinner gets one,” said Levesque. “We have a long list of people who have come in the past and we call them all before Thanksgiving to ask if they are coming to the dinner, if they need a ride, or if they need a meal delivered to them. We don’t want to leave any-one out.”
Volunteers also make sure that all of the local police and emergency personnel who are on duty on Thanksgiving Day receive a meal.
Ernest Morse of Fort Fairfield walked into the dining hall on behalf of his brother-in-law, who is sick with cancer.
“I am going to take dinner to him,” he said. “It is really good that they do this.”
Bruce Bartlett, another Fort Fairfield resident, didn’t want to cook his own dinner this year. He stopped into the VFW Hall to fill a takeout container with food.
“I know the cook, and he does a great job,” he said Thursday. “I know the food will be good.”
Just after 12:30 p.m., Marie Gagnon was on her way into the dinner with a neighbor. Gagnon decided to come at the last minute after her neighbor, who couldn’t visit family in southern Maine because she had to work, offered to take her.
The 83-year-old said all of her children live out of state and she usually travels to one of their homes to have Thanksgiving dinner, but recuperating from a lengthy illness prevented her journey.
“This is the first time I’ve really been out of the house since late summer,” she said Thursday. “I am happy to be here. I was ready to open a can of soup for dinner.”
As Levesque scrambled around to make more coffee, a diner came up and asked him if they could somehow acknowledge the birthday of Paul Rediker, who was on hand to sing to the diners that day. Levesque quickly tapped another diner to lead the group in a round of “Happy Birthday.”
When they were finished, Levesque pointed to that gesture as the reason he thinks volunteers keep coming back to help with the event year after year.
“It is really because of things like that,” he acknowledged, pointing to the diner who made the request. “She knew me, she knew it was Paul’s birthday, and she wanted to do something. We have a lot of community pride here. We are friends and neighbors, and we help each other out. It is what we do here.”
Similar Thanksgiving dinners were held Thursday in Patten, Houlton, Caribou and Presque Isle.