Bob Troutman stirs immense pots of vegetables in the chaotic Payson Elks Lodge #2154 kitchen as he helps prepare the biggest Thanksgiving dinner in Rim Country, with a deep sense of community the Pilgrims would have appreciated.
“This dinner is all volunteers and donations,” from the $3,500 raised to pay for the food to the 100 people who showed up to serve and share this meal with their neighbors, said Troutman.
Stacey Ernst has volunteered with her friend Karen Wood for the past six years. “We started with food prepping, but we moved on to serving and this year we’ll try assisting and bussing. We jump in wherever we’re needed,” she said.
In the drink corner, three children: Cody Burke and Payton and Charmaine Bowan, vie to fill each cup with ice and either water, lemonade or iced tea.
“We put the ice in water and ice tea and put them on the tray. We’re not allowed to put our fingers in the drinks,” explained Charmaine seriously.
The Elks seek to serve the people and communities they reside in with charitable and compassionate programs.
“The reason I like this organization’s event is that anyone can come through the door,” said Mary Schultz. Those who can donate generously, those who can’t bask in the warmth of their neighbors — a greatly extended family.
Schultz, her husband Butch Bowen, two daughters and a grandson have driven up from the Valley to their second home in Payson for the last four years to volunteer at the event.
She says she feels this town is home and the Elks Thanksgiving encapsulates everything she loves about Payson.
Volunteers cover everything from food preparation and cooking, to delivery of dinners to shut-ins, to bussing, clearing and dishwashing.
Donations from the previous year fund the dinner for the current year.
For the past eight years, Troutman and his wife Adrianne, in partnership with Dwayne and Beverly Cunningham, have organized, worked and spearheaded the event.
Preparation for the dinner starts on Monday for the two couples. More than three dozen turkey roasts go into the oven between Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday, the sweet potato casseroles, mashed potatoes, stuffing, vegetables, rolls and gravy get assembled. By Thursday morning at 7 a.m., massive pots on the stove percolate while the ovens burst with dishes.
Starting at 9:30, volunteers line up to assemble Styrofoam containers full of Thanksgiving food for those who are too ill or infirm to make it to the dinner.
“Thirteen groups of deliveries go out to about 150 people,” said Troutman.
By 10:30 all of the delivery dinners have gone out the door. Volunteers switch to setting the tables.
An air of excitement fills the hall. Servers don aprons and slip on plastic gloves. The pie servers make sure pieces of pie sit ready for dessert.
DJ Craig spins tunes from the doo-wop era. Regardless of the seating times scheduled for noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., guests begin arriving by 11:30 in the morning.
Bowen, dressed as Santa, waits at the entrance greeting everyone who enters, “Welcome! Enjoy your meal!”
Volunteers stand at the ready to aid any who can’t hold up the heavy plates.
Friends call to each other across the room. Families with numerous kids in tow take up long tables. Soon the hall spills over with chattering groups busily eating.
Penny Gilmore came to eat with her friends Errol Plata, Mary Caffrey and April Alviar.
“We’re here today to get a home-cooked meal. We’ve been living in a hotel for the past three months,” said Gilmore.
Gilmore, Caffrey and Alviar live in the Pineview Manor apartments.
For the past three months the complex has stored all of their belongings, paid for their hotel and given them a meal a day while they work on remodeling the apartments. To date, no construction has begun.
For Plata, the reason to attend is more personal.
“My wife died at the end of September,” he said.
The camaraderie of the three women, good food and music on the first holiday without his wife cheered him.
For Troutman, it is just this spirit of community that he hopes to inspire, just like those Pilgrims who shared all they had for that first Thanksgiving.