‘An old fashioned Thanksgiving’

Flowers grace the tables and candles flicker a warm comforting glow around the meeting hall at the Elks Lodge during Oak Harbor’s annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner.

When the hall fills up with friends and family, this community event becomes what Keith Bartlett calls “an old fashioned Thanksgiving dinner.”

Bartlett started this local tradition with Oak Harbor resident Jack Stiltz four years ago. Bartlett, who owns Pot Belly Deli in Oak Harbor, said he used to spend his Thanksgivings cooking dinners for families who would order them from the deli.

“I decided that was no fun. It wasn’t an old fashioned Thanksgiving,” he said. “So I decided to give’em away.”

He said he and Stiltz talked about getting the community meal together for about three years before they took on the challenge.

Stiltz said when they started, they knew they needed help and the challenge was seeing if they could get that help. He said with the first year’s response from the community, he and Bartlett decided to continue on with the plan.

“It really turned out to become more than I anticipated,” Stiltz said.

The past four years have seen the event grow to more than 3,000 attendees, receiving a community reputation for the fine food and family service and becoming a yearly tradition for many families and individuals throughout the town.

“Seeing the people enjoy themselves,” Stiltz said. “That’s the best part of it. Not only do they get a good meal, but they get good company.”

Even for those who have no means of transportation, Bartlett said volunteers are willing to cart people to and from the dinner. He said that includes military personnel as well; those on base and off. Bartlett said he doesn’t feel anyone should have to spend Thanksgiving alone or without a good, home-cooked meal to enjoy.

“If they need a ride, we’ll get them a ride there,” he said. The Whidbey Cruzers car club provides much of the transportation.

Along with providing a sit down meal, Bartlett and a team of about

a hundred volunteers deliver meals for those unable to attend the meal due to sickness or disabilities.

Providing a meal and table flowers, donated by local floral shops, Bartlett said volunteers deliver the meals, set them up and spend some time with the families or individuals.

The object is not how many dinners you can deliver that day, but how long you can spend with that person,” he said.

Bartlett said many of the volunteers go back during the Christmas season and visit the same families or individuals they visited for Thanksgiving.

Not wanting to overlook anyone, Bartlett said he has a few volunteers whose job it is to find out how many businesses are open on Thanksgiving Day, how many people they have working and then providing them each with the meals they need.

“We try to feed everyone we possibly can,” he said.

To pay for so many meals, Bartlett goes to local businesses and asks for donations.

“All the businesses in town donate money. They’re pretty generous,” he said. “I mean, you go around and talk to people, and it is something that they all want to be a part of.”

He said the cost of the dinner usually runs anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000. If he receives more than the cost of the meal, the excess funds go to community scholarships and other community organizations. Last year, with the excess funds and donations from some of those who attended the dinner, the event raised $3,000 for scholarships and $600 for the Oak Harbor Boys and Girls Club.

Bartlett said they receive non-monetary donations as well. He said this year one man is donating 200 turkeys and another man donated eight sides of buffalo prime ribs.

To prepare the dinner, he said a team of about 20 to 30 cooks and food handlers start anywhere from 4 to 6 a.m. preparing hams, turkeys, smokers and roasters for the day.

Roger Anglum, who owns Dairy Valley Ice Cream and BBQ in Oak Harbor, smoked 80 hams last year for the dinner. This year, he plans to smoke between 80 and 85 hams. Anglum said he wakes up at 4 a.m. to start double smoking the Thanksgiving hams for the dinner. He said helping out with the dinner is a great deal of work; an all day commitment. But, he said it is a pleasure as well, to see everyone enjoying themselves and helping out.

Throughout the day, volunteers rotate in every two hours to serve, carve, cut, prepare and clean. Everyone works together to make the meal work.

“Even the city gets involved. They come and empty our garbage for us,” Bartlett said. “They take good care of us. Everybody does the little part they can.”

Bartlett said the meal offers a variety of appetizers, such as salmon dips, cracker trays and “all the old stuff grandma used to make.” He said there is also a dessert buffet that offers cakes, pies, nuts, cookies and a wide variety of other sweets. Then, of course, there is the traditional side dishes and the turkey.

Bartlett said his favorite part of the day is the family feel the dinner provides.

“You see all the community come together and eat and have a good time. That’s what Thanksgiving is all about,” he said. “This is an old fashioned Thanksgiving. You got your family, all your friends are there -- everybody.”

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