Hundreds of people filed through the doors of The United Churches of Olympia on Wednesday afternoon for a tasty holiday tradition: Barb’s Family and Friends Annual Thanksgiving Dinner.
“It’s really a good place to come,” said Michael Skoczen, 42, of Olympia, as he finished up a plate of second helpings. “It’s awesome here.”
This year’s community meal included roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, deviled eggs, vegetables and a variety of desserts. Each year, scores of volunteers help prepare and serve the free meal, which was expected to attract as many as1,500 people throughout the afternoon, according to organizer Rodney O’Neill.
A few years ago, the nonprofit decided to market the meal to the entire community, not just the homeless or low income, and O’Neill said he believes that’s one of the reasons it’s continued to prosper.
“It feels like a real family Thanksgiving,” he said. “…I think that’s allowed the numbers to grow, and the people to appreciate it more. It truly is an act of love.”
His mom, Barb, began the tradition of organizing free holiday meals in the early 1970s. She died on Jan. 1, 2008, but left a legacy that has continued with the help of many volunteers, according to Lucille Rhoads, who played piano during the meal.
“She was a very loving person,” Rhoads said of Barb O’Neill. “She felt love for the people in this community.”
The nonprofit Barb’s Family and Friends now supports the meals and holiday events. It will host a free Christmas dinner from noon to 6 p.m. Dec. 19 at The United Churches, 110 11th Ave. SE.
The nonprofit couldn’t serve the number of meals it does without support from local businesses, and this year several new companies donated to the effort, O’Neill said. In addition, Joint Base Lewis-McChord sent down food and volunteers.
“I’m so excited,” O’Neill said. “We’ll have lots of surplus to help out the (United Gospel) Mission and the Salvation Army.”
After helping serve meals, a group of Timberline High School students sat down to enjoy the food, too.
“It’s pretty fun,” said senior Jonathan Gonzalez, 17. “I like meeting new people and hearing the stories they tell us.”
“It was really humbling,” added sophomore Zylene Hudson, 15.