Free Thanksgiving meal, fellowship meant to be shared by all

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The planning committee for the annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner met at Hudson's Oct. 7 to begin work for this year's event, scheduled for Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28. From left are Gloria LaCoe, C.J. Humphrey, Dave Bisbee, Bill McCormack, Allan LaCoe an

It started as a way for locals who lived alone to share a holiday meal in the company of others.

Twenty years later, the mission remains unchanged.

The Hudson's Community Thanksgiving has become a highlight of the November calendar, attended last year by some 1,600 people. Not all of them are single, nor alone. But those who are, dine alongside neighbors of all ages, backgrounds, family configurations, cultures and ethnicities.

The event came about as a result of a simple question from a reporter, who called the Deep Well Project just before Thanksgiving in 1998 and asked then-director Betsy Doughtie where single people could go to share a community meal. "I said there is no place like that," Doughtie said recently. Her comment was quoted in the newspaper on Thanksgiving Day.

The next day, a half dozen islanders called Doughtie, wanting to help plan a community meal for the next year. So, Doughtie called them all together for a meeting and a committee was formed.

Brian Carmines, owner of Hudson's Seafood Restaurant, was there. So was Allan LaCoe, a member of St. Andrew By-the-Sea Methodist Church.

"We wanted to have a free community meal on Thanksgiving Day," LaCoe said. Carmines offered his restaurant as the venue; LaCoe asked his church to sponsor the food.

It was envisioned as a family-style affair, with groups seated together around tables, serving themselves from big bowls that were passed around. "Kind of like Mrs. Wilkes' in Savannah," LaCoe said. People would dine with a dozen others they might not know.

On Thanksgiving Day 1999, 400 people showed up to eat turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans and other traditional Thanksgiving dishes. They were served by 350 volunteers, said Gloria LaCoe, Allan's wife and fellow committee member.

Many of the guests wanted to pay for the meals, but only donations were accepted. Proceeds went to the Deep Well Project, to care for islanders in need of basic food, shelter and a helping hand.

Current director Sandy Gillis said donations over the 20 years have totaled just over $86,000 for Deep Well. "Through the donations, Deep Well is able to provide food and other emergency services to thousands of people every year," Gillis said.

Some things haven't changed in two decades The event is still held on Thanksgiving Day at Hudson's and their employees still prepare it; St. Andrew church still sponsors food costs; and it still takes 350 volunteers to pull it off for the hundreds of guests who show up.

One thing that has changed, Gloria said, was the addition in 2015 of Bluffton Self Help as a beneficiary of donations. "That happened when St. Andrew opened a satellite congregation in Bluffton," she said.

Gloria noted that Second Helpings now takes any leftovers and redistributes it through its network. "So the food serves more than just those who eat here," she said.

On the big day, volunteers arrive early and go directly to their tasks. Some help push tables together, so the 250 seats are configured into 10 or 12 per table.

There will no one sitting alone. A host or hostess will be seated at each table to keep conversation going, help serve, and make sure everyone has a good time.

Some volunteers handle parking, some bus tables, some take care of outdoor activities or drive courtesy golf carts from the parking lot. "We have a 95-year-old man who wraps silverware," Allan LaCoe said. "And we also have a 10-year-old who does the same thing."

Volunteers are critical to pulling off the event smoothly. "We have so many volunteers who have done the same jobs for so many years, it runs like silk," Gloria said. Among them are Doughtie, whose newspaper comment triggered the whole idea.

But they might also be able to use some new recruits. "Just no one under the age of 10," Allan said.

In the kitchen are more volunteers, primarily Hudson's employees led by Andrew Carmines, who now runs the family restaurant. His staff prepares and serves up about 100 turkeys, hundreds of pounds of potatoes, pans upon pans of green beans and stuffing, and other traditional dishes.

"There is no ordering off the menu, no buffet, no bar and no coffee," LaCoe said. Iced tea and water are served by the gallon, however.

The day of celebration begins at 11 a.m. and continues until 3 p.m. Some regulars arrive early to make sure they get their preferred seats.

A number of bands take turns to play a variety of music on the patio, entertaining guests while they wait in line. Volunteers play turkey trivia with guests. The children's area stay busy with face painting and other activities.

"It's a festive atmosphere," Allan said.

All guests and volunteers wear a name tag with their name and where they're from. So far, they've welcomed guests from 39 states and 10 countries. "Some people plan their vacations around this," Gloria said.

The committee will have their work cut out for them again this year on Nov. 28. They expect hundreds of regulars, and hope new folks will show up to share in the fellowship.

"Some are still under the misconception that it is a dinner for poor people, which is not the case," Doughtie said. "People of financial means who just don't want to cook attend. Singles with no family attend. Those with limited financial means attend. People of different ethnicity, race and and economic background sit together at the same table and learn each others stories."

Hudson's Seafood House on the Docks is located off Squire Pope Road at 1 Hudson Road. For more information, call 843-505-1370 or visit CommunityThanksgiving.com. Or, just show up hungry.

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