Irma Peay, 74, claps to the music provided by the Parkville Baladiers from American Legion Post 183 at the 31st annual Greater Towson Jaycees Senior Citizens Thanksgiving Dinner at Towson Presbyterian Church.
Irma Peay, 74, claps to the music provided by the Parkville Baladiers from American Legion Post 183 at the 31st annual Greater Towson Jaycees Senior Citizens Thanksgiving Dinner at Towson Presbyterian Church. (Algerina Perna / The Baltimore Sun)

Julia Seeley, 10, burst into the bustling kitchen in a church hall shortly before 5 p.m. and shouted, "There's buses here!" The first guests began arriving nearly an hour early for a traditional Thanksgiving feast that was still in the making,

Although they were preparing about 200 meals, organizers of the 31st annual Greater Towson Jaycees dinner for seniors remained unruffled and on task. They mixed stuffing with herbs and broth and tended steaming caldrons brimming with sweet potatoes, green vegetables and sauerkraut, relying on the dining room help to tend to the guests.

Young greeters, stationed at the entry to Towson Presbyterian Church, ushered diners to their seats and offered hors d'oeuvres.

"Guests come in and leave with smiles," said Meg Fletcher, president of the Towson Junior Chamber, or Jaycees, and dinner chairwoman. "We wait on them and talk with them. It's a real opportunity to tell them we appreciate them."

The Jaycees' dinner, held Monday, is one of many this week that will provide food and fellowship. Several churches and organizations will be serving free Thanksgiving dinners today. Among those are:

•The annual Bea Gaddy dinner, which typically serves thousands, begins at 11 a.m. at the Patterson Park Recreation Center, 2601 E. Baltimore St. in the city.

•The Loverde Family Community Fund dinner for the homeless runs from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Rice Auditorium on the grounds of Spring Grove Hospital Center, 55 Wade Ave., Catonsville.

•St. Christopher Episcopal Church will serve from noon to 2 p.m. at 116 Marydell Road, Linthicum.

•Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Essex will serve from noon to 2 p.m. in its school cafeteria,1704 Old Eastern Ave.

•In Carroll County, St. John Catholic Church is hosting Shepherd Staff's annual Thanksgiving meal from noon to 2 p.m. at Monroe Street and Route 140, Westminster.

Many guests have returned to the Jaycees' meal year after year. Most said the anticipation of good company, especially time with kids, was as enticing as the savory aromas emanating from the kitchen. "Hi, hon" echoed throughout the spacious hall.

"The volunteers can't do enough for you," said Ines DiPaolo, 83. "The children are like Santa's elves on loan for Thanksgiving."

Zoe Aler, 76, said, "It's great to get out and socialize with so many people."

Catherine Fowler, 88, has come to the dinner the past four years and "blesses the Jaycees" for their kindness.

"It's great to be chauffeured here," she said. "Most of us can't drive at night any more. This way we get out and see the bright night lights."

Gerard Williams, 55, said he felt like he should be paying a hefty tab for dinner at a swanky restaurant. Haywood Butler, 70, liked the ambience.

"These volunteers are open-armed," Butler said. "There is nothing pretentious. They make us feel so comfortable."

Monday's dinner was a real treat for Joan Price, 77, who promised to cook for her family Thursday. She simply sat down and waited for dinner.

"This is not cafeteria-style," she said. "It's service. I don't have to cook or clean. And our servers are so adorable."

Julia's 8-year-old brother Ben filled and refilled water glasses and handled all manner of beverage requests. Throughout the dinner, he made his way among the tables, gently asking what guests needed. He took coffee orders and made sure he returned with a mug of decaf or regular, black or with cream and sugar. He even tried to meet one woman's request for a souvenir mug, but discovered he lacked the authority. The dishes belong to the host church.

"The kids are here to add a little sunshine," said their father, Demian Seeley, another longtime volunteer. "It's really weird how 365 days pass between these dinners and then, you see the same people again and pick up conversation like no time at all has passed."

While his children served, Seeley handled kitchen duty, following directions from his brother-in-law, John J. Schissler, who has overseen dinner prep since its beginnings.

"Everything in the kitchen is John's recipe," Seeley said. "We all just follow."

Schissler roasts about a dozen hefty turkeys, some 200 pounds or more of golden-brown, juicy poultry. His assistants prepare stuffing from scratch. (No pre-mixes are allowed.) He has candied the sweet potatoes, stirred the gravy, steamed the greens and slow-cooked the sauerkraut — a side dish peculiar to Baltimore, he said.

"After 31 years, this is still my favorite project," Schissler said. "Just to see the looks on the faces. If they have been here once, they almost always come back."

Tom Barczak spent at least three hours carving turkeys, without benefit of an electric knife.

"Serving our guests is our best gift," Barczak said. "Thanksgiving is the most neglected holiday for seniors. It's a huge travel day for many families, but seniors can't always travel."

In the 1970s, the service organization boasted a much larger membership. At that time, Thanksgiving was eclipsed between Halloween haunted houses and holiday festivities.

As the elderly population grew in the Towson area, the club came up with the turkey dinner. Towson Presbyterian Church has lent its hall for nearly all the gatherings and the volunteers assist with transportation. As with most service clubs, the Jaycees' rolls have waned, but the dinner remains a priority, organizers said. The club is also grooming a new batch of volunteers, like 15-year-old Michelle Stanley, who has served the dinner for 10 years.

"I like talking to the seniors best of all," she said. "They say that I make their day. They make mine, too."

Christina Bond managed to serve full plates with her toddler on one hip. "I am used to doing things one-handed," she said.

Ashlyn Dwyer, 15, a volunteer since she was 9, said she likes "sitting and talking with the seniors. I hear such good stories."

Doris January, 89, promised, "We are full of stories."

Christine Evelyn, 84, was seated with two neighbors from Trinity House, when three young sisters finished up a serving stint and sat down with them. "Look at our company!" she said. "These precious children."

Evelyn, who has not missed more than one Jaycees' dinner in the last 13 years, cannot travel anymore and has no family close by.

"This really is my Thanksgiving," she said.

The evening ended in music. Seven members of The Baladiers singers sang stirring patriotic songs, old favorites and a few holiday tunes with a spirited crowd joining in.

"What is not to like?" said Dick Bumsted, 82, who has been attending for three years. "It's a nice meal, great entertainment, good company, and it's free."