Five years ago, Joe "Rocky" Bowers was unemployed and homeless. He attended the Thanksgiving Day Community Dinner by The Shepherd's Staff for a warm meal. Thursday's dinner marked the fourth year Bowers spent Thanksgiving in a kitchen cooking for people that were in the same position as he used to be.
Every year, The Shepherd's Staff holds a dinner at St. John Catholic School's cafeteria in Westminster and invites anyone who is in need or alone for Thanksgiving to come for a free meal. While the dinner is only a couple hours long, volunteers have spent countless hours and sometimes days preparing for the annual meal.
Bowers got to the kitchen early Thanksgiving morning, helping cook a little of everything that needed to be prepared. Giving back to the community and helping The Shepherd's Staff, a Christian outreach and support organization for the needy, is very important to him, Bowers said.
"They helped me out in times when I was really down and out," Bowers said as he whisked a pot of mashed potatoes. "It's extremely rewarding. If I could [volunteer] every day of the year, I would."
Cal Bloom, a barber in Westminster, joined Bowers in the kitchen Thursday, but his volunteer work for the dinner started earlier in the week. Bloom was in charge of preparing and cooking the 10 turkeys and 16 turkey breasts that would be served to more than 350 people.
To get so much meat ready for Thanksgiving, Bloom said he started cooking the turkeys Tuesday. With the turkeys cooked and ready to be served, Bloom worked with Bowers to get the corn, green beans, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut cooked.
"I get satisfaction from being able to help people who can't afford or have no one to eat with on Thanksgiving," Bloom said.
Kathy Reid, coordinator of the event, said having dedicated volunteers is crucial to being able to have the Thanksgiving Day Community Dinner every year. Aside from the men in the kitchen, Reid said there were volunteers who helped set up the dining room, served the meal and drove food deliveries to people who could not leave their home. Before the dinner, kids drew holiday-themed placements for the dinner and teenagers created gift bags with desserts.
The group of 40 volunteers come back every year, Reid said, which creates few open spots for new volunteers. Reid estimates that she had to turn away about 30 people that wanted to volunteer this year.
"Each year, I get more and more people that want to volunteer," Reid said. "Other times of the year, we don't have enough volunteers. So hopefully, those people will want to volunteer throughout the year."