Jeanie Jones has spent the past 13 Thanksgivings helping others.
Her community dinners are well-known in Hammond, but less well-known is their new location, Woodland Park Baptist Church.
Jones’ eyes gleam as she predicts this Thanksgiving may be the best one yet.
The menu has been the same since the very beginning — turkey, dressing, salad, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, rolls with butter and gumbo.
Her dinners attract approximately 300 people each year, and she prepares 150 to-go boxes for shut-ins. She expects 400 this year because of increased publicity.
“It started when I had a homeless family living with me, and they had extended family who wanted to have Thanksgiving with them,” she said.
“Our house wasn’t big enough for all of them, so we asked the church —Albany Hungarian Presbyterian — if we could use their facilities, and they said yes. We found out we really liked doing it and wanted to keep going.”
They used the Albany Hungarian Presbyterian facilities for two more years before moving to the Wesley Founda-tion’s campus facilities, where she hosted the dinners until this year.
“It was convenient and the international students at Southeastern, many of whom couldn’t go home, could come there,” she said.
Jacob Jasin, a member of both Woodland Baptist and the International Student Ministry, will bring the students to Woodland Park in a church van for the dinner this year.
Also, this year Jones has much more help than usual.
Becky Seale, an itinerant special education teacher and member of Woodland Park Baptist Church, said she had felt called all year to orchestrate a community supper.
“God put it into my heart that I wanted to do a community Thanksgiving dinner,” she said. “I started mentioning it to people at church, and then a few months ago I got a call from Ms. Jeanie, and it all came together.”
Jones is excited for the new help, which will take some of the pressure of cooking the massive, 20-turkey dinner off her.
Jones’ husband, Harvey, helps her with what he calls the “dumb work”— washing dishes, carving turkeys, cleaning, etc.
“Harvey helps the international students, too,” she said. “He collects old discarded bicycles and repairs them to give to the international students.”
People of all walks of life have volunteered to help at Jones’ Thanksgivings, including whole families.
“People have volunteered and gotten more out of it than they ever thought they would,” she said.
Jones said she makes everything from scratch, as a family dinner would be, instead of using pre-prepared foods.
She has recently been making homemade cranberry sauce with oranges.
“This is a way I can be creative,” she said. “I like the challenge, and I love quantity cooking. I always wanted to own a catering business, and this is very safe. I don’t have to worry about getting fired and it doesn’t cost as much, since people donate.”
When there is leftover food after the dinner, it is donated to a church or community each year, Jones said.
She picks a verse or prayer for each year, and this year, Seale’s daughter will be making prayer cards with the year’s
prayer on them.
“We recite it before we eat,” Jones said. “One year I heard “Now With Thankful Hearts We Sing,” written by 90-year-old composer and opera singer Ray Hahn. It was so beautiful, I asked him if we could use it for that year’s verse and he said yes.”
“Another year, a lady from a church came and sang gospel songs a capella,” she said. “It was a bonus, a gift.”
Jones accumulates much of her cookware from hand-me-downs from relatives, so cookware is never a problem for the big Thanksgiving dinner.
She does most of the cooking in her own kitchen, although some of her volunteers delivered dishes on Thanksgiving or the day before.
Jones said her dinners draw people from all different backgrounds, circumstances, and walks of life.
“Some people I know; some people I don’t. Some people come back every year and it’s like a family reunion. One year I had a homeless family and the mother was crying so hard she couldn’t eat,” she said.
“I’ve had caregivers who just enjoy being served,” she said. “We set up an area for the children to play, and there’s a little girl who comes every year and brings her crayons and craft supplies to share with the other children.
“Sometimes people will give me a hug and slip a donation into my hand. God is orchestrating all of this.”