The family of four sat in the back room of the Elks Lodge as the elderly took the seats nearest the serving line.
They sat with plastic aprons cinched around their waists. They smiled at families that sat around them — two boys, a mother and father.
Yet, they did not come from Payson.
“I found the Payson Elks club through Google,” said Sharon Diggs.
She and her husband Leo, along with their two boys Isaiah (12) and Niko (8), have never spent time in Payson. They had to leave the Valley to continue their family tradition of serving others less fortunate on Thanksgiving Day.
Normally, the Diggs family volunteers at their church in Ahwatukee on turkey day. But this year their church had an early food drive that finished by the time Thanksgiving rolled around.
“I Googled ‘Thanksgiving volunteers needed,’” said Sharon. “The normal ones came up like St. Vincent de Paul’s and the Salvation Army, but they were already filled with volunteers.”
When Sharon read about the Payson Elks Lodge, she discovered that the group has a consistently large community it serves every year and has a great need for volunteers. Since the Diggs had recently moved from Colorado, Sharon and Leo decided to show their two boys that Arizona has a lot more to offer than desert and Saguaro cactus. On Thursday morning, they packed themselves into their car and showed up to serve at 11:30 a.m. when the Elks began the Thanksgiving meals.
The transition from the desert to the forest thrilled the Diggs boys.
“I couldn’t believe all the trees!” said Niko his eyes shining. He and his brother Isaiah miss their forested home in the Highland’s suburb of Denver.
The Diggs are not the only Valley family to drive up into the woods and serve at the Elks.
For the past five years, the Bowen-Schulte family has shown up to serve the people of Payson.
“The payoff for me is all the wonderful smiles I see on people’s faces,” said Bowen.
Throughout the dining room, families and groups of Payson residents beamed as they forked piles of delicious turkey, stuffing, mashed and sweet potatoes into their mouths. This annual tradition allows those who are far from family, or lack a community or resources to afford the dinner to share the bounty of the season.
“I see a lot of the same people,” said Bowen who’s a dead ringer for Santa Claus. “For the last five years, I’ve served the same lady. This year she is 96 years old and she’s as spry as ever. She loves not having to cook or do dishes.”
While most of the town’s residents had disappeared into their homes to leave the streets as empty as a ghost town, the Elks Lodge parking lot brimmed with of cars. A steady stream of attendees flowed into the building, filling up most of the banquet-length tables in both rooms of the large meeting room at the lodge.
Families with children took up the back room, while the elderly sat down as soon as they could near the entrance of the lodge.
Payson’s DJ Craig set up his speakers and music in the center of the room to entertain.
As the Diggs ate their meal, they caught an exchange between Craig and a young guest.
“What would you like to request for your grandparents?” he asked.
“Santa Baby,” replied the boy.
“Ha, ha! Why that song?” asked Craig.
“’Cause it’s silly!” said the boy.
The Diggs cracked up along with the rest of the diners as the music started up.
The Elks not only serve dinners to those who come to the lodge, but also delivers meals to shut-ins.
Earlier in the day, the Elks had delivered about 150 dinners to people too infirm to get out and celebrate.
For the Diggs family, the celebration was everything they had hoped. As they finished up their meal, a Payson couple walked by.
“Thanks for serving, you guys,” said the husband.
“You’re welcome,” said Leo.
Sharon and the boys grinned.
Craig stopped by as the family stood up to leave for their next adventure — spending the night in Flagstaff.
“You boys going to come back next year?” asked Craig.
“Yes!” they answered in unison.
Chalk one up for small-town camaraderie and the magic of Payson.