When the first Service Makes an Individual's Life Extra Special, or SMILES, Thanksgiving dinner in Havre de Grace was served in 1988, Don Osman had no idea the tradition would be carrying on 30 years later.
The annual community Thanksgiving meal will be served next week for the 30th time, and Osman, who helped start the dinner when it was run by the service group at Havre de Grace High School, will be right there serving up meals and coordinating deliveries.
“It’s Havre de Grace, it’s what makes this town so special,” Osman, who retired from Havre de Grace High, said. “They just embraced us, they jumped in, jumped on board and we couldn’t do it without the people of Havre de Grace.”
Open Thanksgiving dinners have become a tradition in several area communities.
More than 1,400 meals will be served in Havre de Grace on Thursday. About 1,000 will be delivered and 300 to 400 will be served at the Havre de Grace Community Center, 100 Lagaret Lane, beginning at 11:30 a.m.
A similar meal will be served at the American Legion Post in Perryville.
A Thanksgiving dinner also will be served Sunday, Nov. 18, in Bel Air by Hope in Action through Central Christian Church. The church is based in White Marsh and has a satellite church in Bel Air. The meal will be served from 1 to 3 p.m.at the Bel Air Armory. This is the ninth year for the event.
The Bel Air dinner was run by Bonnie Prater for eight years but this year, has been taken over by a new group following Prater’s move to Florida with her husband.
“So far, so good,” said Melanie Rimel-Holloway, of Hope in Action, who has worked mostly in the kitchen since the dinner began. “We’re going to try to make it as good in its ninth year as Bonnie did. We have big shoes to fill.”
The group typically serves 100 to 125 dinners, Rimel-Holloway said.
It’s open to anyone who needs a nice, hot meal, she said.
“We’re out to serve God’s people,” Rimel-Holloway said. “At the end of the day, plenty of people need food and drink. If we can provide it for them, that’s what we’re here for.”
Donated turkeys are being prepared by the Farmers Market in Joppatowne; the rest of the items for the meals have been donated by members of the church, Rimel-Holloway said.
Making it ‘personal’
Osman was the founder of SMILES, the student community service group at the school. He’s still involved because it reflects what Havre de Grace is, he said.
“All the people who volunteered all these years, it’s what Havre de Grace is all about. And it keeps me in contact with students, people who order meals year after year,” he said.
The dinner is so popular, one woman called Aug. 29 to make her reservation for a meal delivery, Osman said.
“It’s just amazing how much it’s grown,” he said. “People are very appreciative when they receive a meal, even when they make a reservation. They are very, very thankful that this is going on.”
Last year, more than 400 volunteers helped with the Thanksgiving dinners, whether it was serving at the community center or delivering anywhere from Joppatowne to Conowingo, and Port Deposit in Cecil County.
Osman said he’s hoping many come back this year. He’s especially hoping some of the early volunteers will come back.
“Any of the SMILES kids who volunteered the first year, I’d love to have many of them come back to be recognized for 30 years,” he said.
While 400 volunteers may seem like a lot, it’s really been helpful when it comes to meal delivery, Osman said.
He likes the drivers to be able to spend time with the individuals or families to whom they’re delivering the meals.
“We want to make it very personal, not just drop the meal off and leave,” he said.
Last year, Chad Tate and his family, from Havre de Grace sat with a family while they ate, and prayed with them.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Osman said.
It makes Thanksgiving his favorite holiday of the year.
“You don’t have to worry about about gift-buying or the gifts you receive. It truly deals with just being thankful,” he said.
And he wants the meal to continue, and is hoping in the next few years someone takes over his role.
“I’m getting older and I want this thing to keep going for ages and ages,” he said.
The big roast
One person who has stepped up in the last two years is Fred Wills, who on Wednesday was cleaning the rotisserie at the Joseph L. Davis American Legion Post 47, where more than 100 turkeys will be cooked Monday and Tuesday next week.
Forty to 45 turkeys can be cooked at once there, depending on their size, Wills said. Only eight to nine can be cooked at a time at the community center.
Some of the same people every year take a couple days off and spend their time cooking the birds, he said.
The carcasses are used to make the broth, and from that, the gravy is made.
“We try to yield 30 to 35 gallons of gravy,” he said.
Most of the food for the Thanksgiving meals is donated from dozens of businesses and organizations, which helps defer the cost.
Wills estimated each meal costs about $17, which would mean $17,000 to put on the entire dinner. He said he spends about $2,000 a year to carry out the meal, which is typically paid back through donations received.
Local Havre de Grace restaurants have donated vegetables, including nine cases of corn, nine cases of yams and nine cases of green vegetables. Wills said. He also has more than 400 pounds of frozen broccoli.
Havre de Grace High School students make the stuffing — using 100 pounds of bread, 50 pounds of onions, cases of celery and spices.
Beverages have been donated by Pepsi (sodas), Wawa (juices) and Dollar General (water), he said.
Wills, who moved to Maryland as part of BRAC, was good friends with Rich Holly, a teacher at Havre de Grace High School, who was actively involved with the Thanksgiving dinner. Holly got Wills involved.
When Holly died in February 2017, Wills knew Osman needed help. He had been Holly’s “shadow,” so he knew where the pieces came from.
“I do it just because it’s a good thing. It’s good to give back,” Wills said.
For many of the volunteers, helping with the Thanksgiving dinner has become a tradition.
“Many of the volunteers who show up tend to be generational,” Wills said. “It’s the parents who helped 20 years ago and they want their kids to see what the event is about and how you give back to the community. And I think they just enjoy it.”
While he’s coordinating the cooking, Osman is taking and organizing the reservations. Anyone who would like to have a meal delivered Thursday is asked to call 410-939-5412 or 443-243-7493.
“We’ll make meals until we run out of food,” Wills said.
For military and their families
Thanksgiving dinner will be served to any veteran, active duty military or American Legion member and their families on Thursday at the Perryville American Legion Post, 300 Cherry St., from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The Legion supplies the building for the dinner, which is coordinated by Dana Tipton and sponsored by his company, East Coast Pool Service.
The dinner is in its fourth year.
“It seemed like a lot of veterans didn’t have a place to go on Thanksgiving, no family, no place for a nice meal,” Tipton, a member of Sons of the American Legion, said. “This provides a nice meal, camaraderie, time to interact with other veterans.
Last year, 130 meals were served; this year he’s hoping to serve 150 to 200 people, he said.
The meals are not delivered, nor is transportation provided to the Legion, but carry-out meals are available for people who call ahead, at 410-642-2771.
Volunteers are also welcome to help out Thursday — there’s always potatoes to be peeled, food to be served, dishes to be washed, he said.
“We have lots of volunteers, people stop by, they’re in and out all day. Some people stay all day, some for a couple hours,” Tipton said. “It’s just a nice time for everybody, a lot of laughs. It’s just nice to give back to the community.”
Holly Merchant helps out every year as part of the American Legion Auxiliary.