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November 24, 2006

Santa Cruz

Thousands converge on Santa Cruz Veterans Hall for meals

To be first for Thanksgiving dinner, 52-year-old Diane Patricia Gordon camped in front of the Santa Cruz Veterans Hall Wednesday night and prayed for the welfare of soldiers.

"When we got here, she was standing out there," said Erin Beuhla, a volunteer at the 22nd annual Thanksgiving feed at the Bill Motto VFW Post on Front Street.

Behind Gordon, hundreds of people lined up to feast on the free meal that began decades ago as a veterans-only gathering but has grown into a community affair.

"Each year, we have more people," said volunteer Jane Anglin, who has helped out for 12 years.

Organizers expected to serve about 1,000 meals from the half-ton of turkey and 300 pounds of potatoes that went into the dinner.

"We cook a mountain of food," said organizer Linda Berkenpas, who has been volunteering at the meal for 14 years.

The meal has humble beginnings, though.

It started in the late 1970s when a handful of veterans with no place to celebrate Thanksgiving cooked a turkey in the post's basement kitchen, Berkenpas said. The meal grew each year, but remained an exclusive VFW event until 1984, when "we had more food than veterans," a post administrator told the Sentinel in 1985. "We just went out and opened the dinner up to street people. There are a lot of hungry people out there."

The first few public meals served about 300 veterans and hungry. More than two decades later, the public dinner still draws veterans and the homeless, but they are joined by the elderly, families and UC Santa Cruz students who don't go home for the holiday.

Volunteers began preparing the donated food Tuesday, loaded the turkeys into ovens at the Pacific Cookie Company that night and did all of the slicing, dicing and cooking Wednesday, Berkenpas said. More than 400 people showed up early on Thanksgiving to help decorate, greet people and clean up afterward.

"I do this for the vets," said Ray Kemp, a peace-time veteran and UC Santa Cruz alum. "For me, the Army was fun. For the guys who had to do it for real, it wasn't fun."

Beth Savitt, a volunteer from Aptos who came with her husband and three sons to lend a hand, said her family returns year after year "because we can. We're lucky."

She leaned down to hug Gordon, now seated at a long table with a plate of mashed potatoes, turkey, stuffing, yams and a slice of pumpkin pie in front of her.

"I have some people in here I see all the time on Pacific Avenue," Savitt said. "They become my friends. It's great."

Contact Jennifer Squires at jsquires@santacruzsentinel.com.


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