The Salvation Army Community Kitchen’s doors opened at noon Thursday for the charity’s annual community Thanksgiving dinner, and an official count showed volunteers served 89 people within 15 minutes.

Spokesperson Heather Helton said officials expected to exceed the 529 meals served last year, based on the increased numbers of people seeking aid in recent weeks.

“We’ve had a lot more people needing food and other aid,” she said. “We’re ready for an increase in the number of Christmas and Thanksgiving meals.”

The dining room seats about 100 at a time. Workers were serving dinners and desserts to people at their tables, while others monitoring the line outside came in to urge diners to keep in mind that others were waiting to enter.

Helton estimated the kitchen had collected 60 turkeys of various sizes for the event.

A special gift this year was 30 dozen tamales cooked and donated by Alicia Deleon and her son, Gracielo Tovar, who were volunteering at the Salvation Army for the first time this year.

They said they volunteered for years at dinners and food distribution projects for churches and other agencies, including Waco’s St. Francis Catholic Church.

“We just decided we wanted to help out at this dinner this year,” Tovar said. “My mother worked all night cooking the tamales, and I helped. Tamales are a Hispanic tradition at Thanksgiving and Christmas. We wanted to give our best to help people who need it.”

They also provided hot chocolate.

Many volunteers attended for the first time this year. Others had given their time and talents for many years.

The Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at University High School had 19 students doing anything needed on the floor. They already had decorated a Christmas tree set up in the dining area in advance of the next big event.

“This is our seventh year doing this,” said retired 1st Sgt. Leonard Montelongo Jr., senior Army instructor for the program. “Community service is a big part of what we do. Our students volunteer their services at all kinds of events all over town.”

People attended the dinner for a variety of reasons, from inability to provide holiday dinners for themselves to isolation from friends and relatives.

Dawn Forsythe, attending the event for the first time with a few friends, said: “This is my first year here. I don’t have any family in town, and I want to be here because you can just feel the warmth here.”

Apparently, the warmth was tangible in spite of the highly organized, high-speed pace of workers everywhere making sure the service was efficient and the dining hall kept clean. The dinner went on for three hours, then the doors closed before reopening at 5:30 p.m. for the evening.

“Of course, we’re serving Thanksgiving food, but this is just an extension of what the kitchen does 365 days a year,” Helton said.

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