By Faire Holliday, Dining Room Volunteer Coordinator
The white FOOD For Lane County van arrives around 9:15 am, bringing trays and pans of Thanksgiving treats: ham, mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits, green bean casserole, and pie. The food, once unloaded from the van, fills two stainless steel countertops in the Dining Room kitchen. It’s almost a staggering amount, until you consider how many people will pass through the doors over the course of the day.
Around 10:30, the first volunteers arrive, wiping the rain off of their boots on the red carpet inside the side door, taking off their windbreakers, putting on aprons, and washing their hands. They’re ready to help prepare the Thanksgiving meal that will feed 300 people this afternoon. A few more folks arrive. Holiday greetings are exchanged, and the mood is festive. Jesse, the chef, oversees the volunteers, directing them to tasks that need to be completed before the restaurant opens for business at 1:00. A few volunteers roll silverware into cloth napkins. Another slices a pie and places the aromatic wedges onto dessert plates. Two others put tablecloths, candles, and little laminated menus on the tables.
Everywhere around Eugene, the same sort of preparation is being done. It’s the day before Thanksgiving and the town is buzzing with activity as people prepare for the visits of family and friends. The only difference: at the Dining Room, hungry dinner guests eat for free in an atmosphere of dignity and respect.
By 12:15, the first dinner guests have lined up outside along the tomato-red walls of the Dining Room. It’s a little cold and rainy, but the mood is festive out here, as well. One man comes up to read the menu board and walks back to his place in line with a big smile on his face.
Volunteers for the first serving shift start trickling in soon after, wearing white button-down shirts and black slacks or skirts. It’s the most special day in the Dining Room for many people—staff, volunteers, and dinner guests alike—and you can feel it in the hushed voices, the carefully-contained energy of people hurrying to and fro. Everything will run like clockwork today.
At 12:45, Josie, the Family Dinner Program Manager, asks all the volunteers to gather. She leads them outside in a row, each person dressed almost identically in the black-and-white uniform that signifies an elegant dining experience. She asks the people waiting for a meal if they’ll give her a moment of their time; then—as everyone starts to hush—she introduces each volunteer and staff person.
“These are the folks who will be serving you today,” she says, and spontaneous applause begins from the dinner guests, bringing tears to the eyes of more than one volunteer.
“No,” Josie says, “Don’t thank us. Thank you for being here.”
She’ll give each dinner guest a thank you card before they leave that afternoon, to let them know that they are welcome at the Dining Room and that the staff and volunteers recognize the strength and resilience it takes to live a life of food insecurity.
At 1:00, the first dinner guests enter the Dining Room. A few people shrug off backpacks and stow them near the front entrance, the first time they’ve felt safe leaving their belongings all day. Someone expresses wonder at the tablecloths and the candles. Another bows his head in prayer after he finds his seat.
“Welcome to the Dining Room,” a volunteer says to the three men and a woman she’ll be serving.