Perryman resident Joyce Repman and her son, Daniel “Skip” Repman Jr., dug into their Thanksgiving meals Thursday at the Havre de Grace Community Center, enjoying turkey with gravy, stuffing, corn and green beans.
“It’s delicious,” Joyce Repman said. “That’s a good combination.”
The community dinner has been a tradition in the city for 30 years, since it was started in 1988 by Havre de Grace High School students and their teacher, Don Osman. The retired HHS teacher and former Harford County Board of Education member founded the student service group, SMILES, or Service Makes an Individual’s Life Extra Special, in 1984.
“I’ve been coming for a long time,” said Skip Repman, who recalled when the dinner was held at the high school, and later shifted to the nearby St. Patrick’s Church. The dinner has been held at the community center on Lagaret Lane since 2015.
“I’m thankful we have something to eat,” Skip Repman added.
Joyce Repman said her late husband, Daniel Sr., used to join her for the dinner. The 20-year Navy veteran, who served two tours of duty during the Vietnam War, died in 2014, she said.
Repman said the loss of her husband still hurts, but it helps to have her son with her during the holiday.
“The people, the food, the meal that we are thankful for,” she said when asked what she enjoys about the Havre de Grace community Thanksgiving.
Posters had been placed around the community center, marking the 30th anniversary of the dinner.
SMILES folded after the 2012-2013 school year, and the nonprofit Community Projects of Havre de Grace took on the dinner the next year. Osman has stayed on as coordinator of the dinner, with support from hundreds of volunteers — including many students and former Havre de Grace High School students — and local businesses that donate food, drinks and supplies.
Osman was on hand Thursday — he and other staff wore maroon shirts, one of Havre de Grace High’s colors — as volunteers worked on two serving lines putting together meals for delivery and a third line giving out meals for people to eat at the community center.
Other volunteers delivered the meals to people in Cecil and Harford counties, set the tables at the community center, waited on guests at their tables or sat with people as they ate.
Osman estimated at least 200 volunteers were participating, and about 1,400 meals would be served — more than 1,200 went out for delivery.
“Havre de Grace runs on volunteers,” he said. “It’s just nice that they’re willing to give their time [on Thanksgiving].”
Osman said volunteers come from many parts of Harford County, as well as Cecil.
“We’re part of their family and part of their group of friends,” he said.
Abingdon resident Larry Tyson wore a dark blue Army “mess dress uniform” as he chatted with other volunteers. He retired from the service in 2010, after 26 years, as a first sergeant.
This year was the first for him volunteering at the Havre de Grace dinner. He said he and his wife, Inez, wanted to volunteer during the holiday.
“[We] decided a couple years ago we needed to start giving back on Thanksgiving,” Tyson said.
Inez Tyson helped with serving and setting up tables while Larry delivered meals at an apartment complex in Perryville.
He recalled spending some Thanksgiving holidays overseas, during deployments to Kuwait, Turkey and South Korea. He said the military provided “a spectacular meal” for the troops, though.
“We were apart [from our families], but the meal made you think that you were at your own Thanksgiving table,” Tyson said.
He said his wife learned about the Havre de Grace dinner online.
“Now that we know it exists, we can volunteer next year,” he said.
Havre de Grace resident Jami Morlok brought her children, Jaden Gomez, 15, and Janika Gomez, 12, and her son’s Havre de Grace High classmate, Brook-Lynn Brown, also 15, to volunteer.
Jaden and Brook-Lynn are in the ninth grade at HHS, and Janika is in the sixth grade at Havre de Grace Middle School.
The youths said they helped wrap eating utensils in napkins. The Gomez siblings said they have been volunteering at the dinner for several years.
“For us, it’s at this point tradition almost, so we just come here and help,” Jaden said.
This year is Brook-Lynn’s first, she said, noting that “it feels good to give back to the community.”
Morlok said she is a volunteer firefighter with the Susquehanna Hose Company, of Havre de Grace.
“I just try to teach the kids that it’s better to do for others,” she said. “I feel like, living in Havre de Grace, it’s one big family, so if we can get together and serve each other by serving others that’s what it’s all about.”
Resident Chad Tate said he has known Osman since he was a student at HHS. The 1982 graduate said he has remained friends with his former English teacher. Osman even served as best man for Tate’s wedding.
Tate said he has five daughters, ages 27 to 8, and his oldest, Emily, participated in SMILES in high school. His daughter, Julianna Tate Zoch, volunteered with him Thursday, along with her husband, Jacob Zoch. They live in Tennessee, but decided to volunteer while visiting her family over the holiday.
“It’s just powerful,” Tate, 53, said when asked his thoughts on the 30-year lifespan of the dinner.
He has been involved with the dinner as an adult for 15 to 20 years. He said many people volunteered in earlier years through their connections to the high school and Osman, but more have been coming in recent years through word of mouth, as they have friends or colleagues who volunteer and decide they want to be part of the experience, plus involve their families.
His daughter, Julianna, now 23, said she spent her freshman year at HHS and was home-schooled for the rest of her time in high school. She completed high school in 2012.
She said high school students are not always enthusiastic about performing community service, but Osman “always had a way of making it something that people wanted to be a part of.”
Her husband was a first-time volunteer at the dinner. He said Havre de Grace “has that small-town feel, but everyone has those same ideals of wanting to give back on Thanksgiving.”
Committee member Fred Wills sat down with fellow organizers to partake of the meals once the delivery meals had gone out and the in-house service started.
He was a close friend and “shadow” of the late Richard Holly, a retired HHS teacher who had been a key organizer of the dinner until he died in early 2017. Wills stepped up, taking on greater organizing duties starting with last year’s dinner.
Wills reflected on the operations of the dinner this year, saying they had improved from the previous year even with the addition of another serving line for deliveries. He said committee members are already planning improvements for next year.
“I think we have some happy-eating people here, so we’re good,” he said.