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Thanksgiving food and fellowship

Volunteers host Thanksgiving dinner in North Liberty
Kevin and Mary Klein dish up food and fellowship. This year marked the sixth Thanksgiving dinner hosted at the South Slope Community Center, where volunteers offered their time serving a free meal to community members from noon to 4 p.m. (photo by Cale Stelken)

NORTH LIBERTY– On a day when most folks set out to gorge on a large meal with family before an afternoon snooze in the recliner, a handful of community members set aside part of their holiday to provide food and fellowship.
Amanda Engstrom managed the free community Thanksgiving dinner on Nov. 23, in what has become a staple of North Liberty.
Just before noon, the food line was ready. The volunteers were all smiles as they bantered and assumed their assigned trays of hot fixings, serving utensil in hand. Several round tables filled the room, set with quaint turkey centerpieces made by the local Girl Scouts troop.
Bustling between the kitchen and dining area, Engstrom carefully oversaw the operation, making sure supplies were stocked and putting together meals to go. Her daughter orbiting nearby, she engaged the staff and guests with a cheerful demeanor and hearty laugh on the sunny November afternoon.
“This is year six,” declared Engstrom during a short break. 
A 20-year resident, she’s been responsible for coordinating the North Liberty community Thanksgiving every year. A thorough background in volunteer work supplements her ability to helm the event.
“I used to volunteer at a church in Iowa City, and I’d been doing it for 20-some years,” she recalled. “And I just kinda thought North Liberty was getting big enough that it could probably use one of its own.”
Based on attendance, the event has proven a fruitful effort.
“The first year it was like 40-something, and then last year we had like 85,” Engstrom affirmed. “We’ve doubled in six years, so I’m pretty thankful for that.”
While demographics vary slightly, Engstrom noted a predominately advanced age group.
“There are some families with smaller children. I’ve had foreign exchange students. But I’d say generally it’s mostly elderly,” she observed.
South Slope Cooperative Communications, of which Engstrom is an employee, has donated its community space for Thanksgiving every year. The event utilizes a variety of local resources to provide guests a well-rounded meal.
“I get donations from the businesses in North Liberty and people, too,” Engstrom said. “And then I actually pay Hy-Vee to cater it, but they do it at a discount also.”
By 1:20 p.m., Engstrom announced to staff the plastic utensils had nearly run out. Volunteers dug into their wallets as they planned a quick run to the store, contemplating which retailers would be open during the holiday. 
As to whether or not a growing community such as North Liberty could yield a viable supply of volunteers, Engstrom had them in spades. As the meal got underway, an additional small crew stopped by to see if more help was needed, but were gratefully dismissed by Engstrom.
“People just love to volunteer. They offer like crazy, so I usually end up having to turn people away,” she laughed.
Engstrom has maintained a reliable crew year after year. “There’s probably half of them out there have been every year,” she said, looking out from the kitchen to the dining area. “The O’Rourke family– Ryan, Bobbi and Randy– they’ve been here for a few years,” she said.
Keith Kauten, a new resident to North Liberty, was eager to lend a hand. “I like volunteering because it takes the attention off me and puts it on them,” he remarked. 
“This is our fourth year, I believe,” said volunteer Bobbi O’Rourke. “I love to have something to share with my family, that we do together, that reaches out to other people.”
A psychologist and 39-year resident of North Liberty, Bobbi was joined by her husband Randy, a dentist, in addition to their son, Ryan. The family has previously volunteered for the River Community Church in Iowa City.
“They’ve been my comrades in doing this, and we come early and help set up all those years and serve the first shift,” Bobbi said. “Then we still have part of the day ourselves to do stuff.”
“This is my second year out here on Thanksgiving,” noted Ryan O’Rourke. “It’s nice to help out, and it stops you thinking about yourself.”
Currently an Iowa City resident, O’Rourke grew up in North Liberty and has made it a habit to return to his hometown and assist, at the encouragement of his mother.
Engstrom was also joined by her boyfriend, Cory Woodburn, as well as her aforementioned daughter, Kinzie, who often stuck by her mother’s side, eager for an opportunity to help.
“I started bringing her about two or three years ago, to be a part of it and help,” the proud mother said. “And she’s a good helper.”
For the second shift of volunteers, members of Kinzie’s Girl Scout troop pulled on gloves and assumed the food line. Engstrom stressed the importance of volunteer work in building a foundation of empathy and compassion.
“I have found, too, that a lot of volunteers will want to bring their children, which is fine; I encourage it. Because it’s good to get the kids started early to realize not everybody has everything that maybe we have” she insisted. “So they get to see things kinda from the other side.”
It’s vital as ever for community members to do their part to make sure everyone in North Liberty has a place at the table on Thanksgiving, Engstrom said.
“It brings the volunteers together and it also brings the guests together,” she asserted. “So anything that you can do to bring the community together nowadays is just worth it; it’s awesome.”
Following the dinner, Engstrom was excited to report a total 105 guests.
“It has always been my hope, from the start, that this grows into a large event,” she elated. “I am so glad that it’s getting there.”