WAUTOMA — St. Joseph Parish has long been known for providing free meals and socializing for anyone in the community. The Knights of Columbus offer pancake breakfasts, and other committees offer monthly dinners and annual Thanksgiving dinners.
This year, the global pandemic has prompted the volunteers to examine creative ways to still offer the Thanksgiving meal while keeping everyone safe. And turkey dinners with all the traditional trimmings will still be provided.
Meals have been offered at St. Joseph for 30 years, and Helen Cox and Kathy House have been co-chairwomen for 20 years. “It’s a social thing,” Cox said. “On the fourth Saturday, people can come and get a free meal — at least until last March.” She said that, in spite of the ongoing pandemic, they still wanted to offer a Thanksgiving meal.
Cox said they have always had great support in securing volunteers to help prepare and serve the meals, as well as sponsors who donate food. “We’re lucky to have the support of our parishioners and anyone else who wants to donate food,” she said. “We have never had to buy a turkey or ham.”
They also typically serve mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables, dressing, hors d’oeuvres and drinks. In a typical year, there will be about 140 people for dinner in the parish hall, 30-35 people who take food to go home and other meals that are delivered.
“They’re always appreciative and very happy,” Cox said. “They’re happy to have a place to come on Thanksgiving. For me, it’s a fun thing to see people enjoying themselves and having a good time.
“We’re going to do things just a little differently this year. We decided to do meals curb-side.”
After final reservations were taken, the volunteers were preparing to produce 465 meals, including 93 meals to deliver, “the most we’ve ever done,” Cox said. “It’s unbelievable, overwhelming. We’ve never done this much. I’m sure this is because of COVID-19 and people can’t get together with their families.”
Along with organizer Geri Harris, the volunteers are planning to cook 22 turkeys and 24 recipes of stuffing, and Grace Methodist Church will be donating pumpkin bars. In addition to the people preparing the meals, this year there will also be volunteers packaging the dinners in containers and runners taking people’s names at their cars and bringing back their pre-ordered dinners.
“It’s going to be an interesting prospect,” Cox said.
Cox has found volunteering for the meals enjoyable ever since she and her husband, Oren “Butch” Cox, moved to the area in 1996. Originally from Illinois, the couple lived in Florida for many years. Her sister and brother-in-law purchased property in Wild Rose and later retired there, and the Coxes enjoyed visiting them. When it came time for the Coxes to retire, they decided to come to this area, too.
They found a spiritual home at St. Joseph. “I’ve been very happy with the parish,” Cox said. “St. Joseph’s is a very friendly parish. I’ve enjoyed working there, teaching fifth-grade religious education. My husband and I are eucharistic ministers, I’m a lector, a hospitality minister and I was on the parish council for a while.”
She said serving meals is rewarding. “It’s fun to see people get together, enjoying themselves and having a good time. And it’s a nice service to provide for people — especially at this time with COVID-19,” Cox said. “Our county is not the richest county, but if we put the call out there to get turkey, food, donations, I’m amazed how many people donate.
“We’re providing a service for the community, even though they will have to take their food home and eat it by themselves. Some people in the parish are planning to get together while still in their cars, turning on the heaters and rolling down the windows to chitchat. This is going to be a very interesting year.”