Long after the passing of its founder, the South Whidbey tradition of preparing and delivering Thanksgiving dinner to people in need keeps on growing.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Mobile Turkey Unit, a nonprofit organization that provides an invaluable community service during the Thanksgiving holiday. Every year, an assembly line of volunteers cooks and packages a turkey dinner with all the fixings, which is then delivered by a team of drivers to homes all around Clinton, Langley, Freeland, Greenbank and Coupeville.
Meal recipients often include the elderly, the homebound, low-income and unemployed individuals and people working during the holiday. For those with no permanent address, meals are distributed at Chevron Short Stop in Freeland and Mobil Gas Station in Bayview.
Mobile Turkey Unit is the brainchild of Thomas Arhontas, a South Whidbey resident who died in 2008. A school bus driver, Arhontas traversed the back roads of the district and witnessed firsthand the need that families were experiencing.
“Tom didn’t believe that any kid should go without dinner for Thanksgiving,” said longtime volunteer and organizer Janice Martinovic.
According to a 2008 article in the South Whidbey Record, Arhontas had a passion for keeping kids from going hungry. He was known to cook a spaghetti dinner for student athletes that he bussed to sporting events. He also owned a restaurant business in Bayview called Tommy’s Gyros.
In 1999, Arhontas founded Mobile Turkey Unit. That very first year, a small group of volunteers made around 25 meals in the school district’s bus barn. Recipients had their choice of turkey, ham and venison. It didn’t matter who you were, or where you lived – no qualifying questions were ever asked.
“If you were in the parking lot of Ken’s Korner, you received a meal,” said Art Taylor, another longtime volunteer and organizer. “If you were out in the woods in a cabin and you gave us directions, we delivered to you. We incorporated to basically delivering meals to people who were working at the telephone company, at the ferry, at the gas stations.”
In those early days, Martinovic remembers that obtaining enough funding was difficult. From time to time, Arhontas would disappear and come back with pockets full of cash.
“That was especially memorable. That was just Tom. He could sweet talk anybody into cash for a good cause,” Martinovic said. “We sure lost a good leader when he died.”
Mobile Turkey Unit officially became a nonprofit organization in 2017, alleviating some of the funding challenges that it had encountered in years past. Donations, grants and community partnerships help keep it afloat year after year.
After Arhontas’ passing, the ragtag team of volunteers decided to keep the tradition alive. Mobile Turkey Unit has experienced much transition since then, with meals being prepared in larger spaces as the need increased exponentially. Today, Mobile Turkey Unit delivers about 700 meals, which are produced in the commercial kitchens of St. Hubert Catholic Church and Langley United Methodist Church.
“It’s become a well-oiled machine at this point,” Martinovic said.
She added, “It doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving unless we’re scooping up mashed potatoes and putting them into containers to deliver.”
Friends of Arhontas agreed that he likely never expected Mobile Turkey Unit to get quite so big.
“Tommy always would say we were successful if the orders of the meals went down,” Taylor said. “As you can tell, our success grew in the opposite direction.”
About eleven years ago, Gwendine Norton came on board as one of the event’s main organizers. Though she never got the chance to meet Arhontas, she has diligently helped carry out his mission of helping others in need procure a Thanksgiving Day meal.
When she looks back at the years past, Norton is always impressed that the dedicated volunteers kept Mobile Turkey Unit running, even when it must have been a struggle at times.
“We can’t do this project without the village of this community,” Norton said. “It just overwhelms me every year when I see all these people gathered to help us make this happen.”
An especially trying year was 2020, when organizers contemplated calling it off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the restrictions on gatherings, volunteers had to spread out to get the work done, and contactless delivery was implemented.
“That would have been the year this could have faltered, and it didn’t,” Norton said.
She saw the number of meal recipients decrease slightly last year, which may indicate that people are feeling more comfortable about spending Thanksgiving with others.
“We never know until the night before,” Norton said. “We advocate that people get their order in at least by the week prior to Thanksgiving. But if we have meals available, we’ll continue to accept orders. We’ve never had to say no.”
As always, meals can be requested by visiting the organization’s website, mobileturkeyunit.com. For those who may not be familiar with how to use a computer, give Norton a call at 360-321-9782 to order a meal.
But if you’re located outside of South or Central Whidbey – as was the case for one order that recently came in from Miami – you’re out of luck.
“I had to call them and tell them they were just a little bit out of my service area,” Norton said with a laugh.
Sign-ups for volunteers opened Oct. 1, and time slots filled up at a record-breaking pace this year. Norton said she tells people to mark their calendars every year, and that they are catching on that you must sign up early in order to help out.
Volunteers are of all ages, including children. Norton said Mobile Turkey Unit is trying to find ways to keep young people engaged, including working with a club at South Whidbey High School. In addition, kids from Coupeville Elementary School classes create cards to send with the meals, which are a big hit with recipients.
“We’re certainly looking forward, that’s for sure, and trying to make sure that this is a model that’s sustainable for hopefully generations to come,” Norton said.
For many families, volunteering for Mobile Turkey Unit is the highlight of their Thanksgiving holiday. This was the case for Laura Canby, a volunteer who was involved with the organization from the very beginning.
“In our household, for our son, Thanksgiving really meant Mobile Turkey Unit for him,” Canby said. “It was a great way to serve the community.”
Canby and her family completed a variety of tasks as volunteers, from taking photos of other volunteers to devising a logo for the organization to preparing the food to delivering it.
“It was nice delivering them, especially to seniors living by themselves,” Canby recalled. “You’d just see the smile come across the face when you’d hand them the bag and wish them a happy Thanksgiving.”