In the kitchen at Mount Nittany United Methodist Church, a group of volunteers were slaving over a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Nearly 400 pounds of turkey meat had been cooked and cleaved to the bone the day before, paving the way for the several cartons of mashed potato mix and large cans of corn that were currently laying claim to any and all available counter space.
The loud clinks and clanks that accompany any quality meal in the making were dulled by a rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” that played softly in the background. It was slightly anachronistic, sure, but it helped that the familiar yuletide jingle was streaming from a nearby iPad, as if to reassure guests that even if they hadn’t arrived in time for the right holiday, they were at least in the right decade.
Speaking of said guests, their impending arrival had inspired a whirlwind of activity in the kitchen, a culinary choreography that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a takeout restaurant at the peak of the evening rush. Pots of mashed potatoes were being poured into serving dishes, while gravy was ladled into small Styrofoam cups with plastic lids, packaged with other containers of food in large brown paper shopping bags.
Out in the banquet hall — or gymnasium with folding tables — the theme was decidedly “fall.” Faux leaves sat on table cloths with artificial gourds and pumpkins, fortifying Thanksgiving against the holly jolly kitchen.
It’s just about family, friends and community getting together and eating food.
Kathy Moore, volunteer
Wendy Franklin, banquet coordinator, halted the work and asked all of the volunteers to come together in the center of the hall. It was like a pregame huddle, lighter on battle cries but heavier on prayer.
Before the group disassembled into their various formations, Franklin reaffirmed one important rule; if any of their guests offered to pay for the meal that they were about to receive, they were to be politely — but firmly — rebuffed.
For nearly a decade, Mount Nittany United Methodist Church has provided a free Thanksgiving dinner to any and all in the community who wish to partake.
All of the food is donated by parishioners and cooked by volunteers from both inside and outside of the church.
“It’s just about family, friends and community getting together — and eating food,” Kathy Moore, a volunteer, said.
Moore and her husband typically celebrate Thanksgiving with relatives in Massachusetts, but this year the impending arrival of their seventh grandchild kept them closer to home.
In honor of the holiday — and their 38th wedding anniversary — the pair decided to spend the day volunteering.
“We thought what better way to celebrate Thanksgiving,” Moore said.
Within an hour of emailing Franklin, Moore received a reply back welcoming them to the team.
She was stationed near the banquet hall’s entry way, tasked with keeping a running headcount of the diners winding their way towards the buffet line. It had been a little more than 30 minutes since the doors had opened and Moore’s tally was already up in the 60s.
Next year she and her husband are hoping to transition to food prep, a more glamorous position second only to the gentleman who had the good fortune to be tasked with pushing a giant cart full of pies around the room.
By all accounts, they were good pies.
Rebecca Berg tried a piece of each — pumpkin and cherry — and both met with her satisfaction.
“This church is known for its dinners,” Berg said.
Berg is a member of Mount Nittany United Methodist, but her health prevented her from whipping up anything more than a monetary donation, so that others could benefit from the same good fortune she was enjoying.
Her family was unable to get together for the holiday and Berg said that the community dinner is helpful “when you live alone and you don’t necessarily want to eat by yourself.”
It’s time they’re spending away from part of their families to do something for people like us who are also spending time away from their families.
Frank Cianfrani, paramedic
The church’s hospitality extended far beyond the dining hall.
Earlier in the evening, volunteers Glenn Mullbergar and Sean Rockey loaded bags of warm food into a green pickup truck that they would drive to nearly 50 different locations throughout the course of the evening.
Mullbergar has belonged to the church for 38 years and served as its Thanksgiving delivery man — sans tips — for a decade. The gig still has its charms.
“You meet a lot of nice people,” Mullbergar said.
Their first stop of the evening was at Centre LifeLink, where they were welcomed into the building by a group of paramedics also working the holiday grind.
On the table was a barren “lunch turkey” picked clean to the bone. The containers of fresh meat, mashed potatoes and stuffing that Mullbergar and Rockey delivered were a grateful sendoff to the day-shift crew and a moral booster to night-time staffers.
Paramedic Frank Cianfrani was happy that the church reached out.
“It’s time they’re spending away from part of their families to do something for people like us who are also spending time away from their families,” Cianfrani said.