By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — One of the most American of America’s holidays, Thanksgiving Day, was born in 1621 when Pilgrims celebrated a successful harvest with the Native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe.
Norman’s annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner is a representation of that shared feast. Hosted at Norman Public High School, the neighborly gathering allows residents to transcend their differences for one day while they break bread together in gratitude.
For some, it’s a day to give back to those less fortunate. For others, it’s a chance to rub shoulders with others in the community at all strata of the economic spectrum. For yet another segment of the population, it’s the best meal they get all year.
Food and Shelter hosts the annual November meal and has for years. Now, the United Way, the city of Norman, the Salvation Army and Norman Public Schools help with the event.
“This has grown so big, we can’t do it by ourselves anymore,” said April Doshier, Food and Shelter executive director.
Last year, 800 meals were served on site and 200 meals were distributed by Meals on Wheels.
“We planned for more than that this year,” Doshier said.
Organizers sent out 250 meals this year, with 60 meals added for people in east Norman who are still struggling after the May 19 tornado. Those 60 meals will be coordinated with Hilltop Baptist Church.
In addition to the partner agencies, many people and groups donate to make the event a success. Forty turkeys were donated from Culinary Kitchens in Oklahoma City, where the ovens can cook a turkey in 20 minutes, Doshier said. For the third year, Gigis Cupcakes sent over dozens of cupcakes. La Baguette donates bread.
“It’s one of the most beautiful community events that you can see,” Doshier said.
The dinner feeds people in a broad range of ages from elderly members of the community who don’t want to eat alone, to middle class families, to teens, children and a growing homeless population.
A middle-aged couple walked up to Doshier and asked how they could pay for their meal.
“We don’t need a receipt,” they said, adding that they just wanted to be a part of the community event.
It’s that spirit of giving and sharing that makes this meal special, Doshier said.
The Thanksgiving Day meal is one of the few times social-economic barriers are dropped and the more fortunate sit down and eat with Norman’s homeless. Some of the diners have been on both sides of the table at some point in their lives.
Johnny Montgomery, a native of Norman and a 1976 NHS graduate, has had and lost a lot of good jobs through the years.
At the Thanksgiving dinner Thursday, he sat at one of the high school cafeteria tables, quietly reading a small New Testament someone gave him recently. He’s been homeless for about two years, he said, but he’s on special medication now and has an appointment with a counselor next week to see about getting back on his feet.
“It was excellent,” Montgomery said of the meal.
He said he loves reading and is grateful for the new Bible.
“My other one’s worn out,” he said. “I’m always over at the library reading the paper. I like to keep up with the news.”
He remembers when Norman was smaller but said the spirit of the community has not changed much. It’s still the town he grew up in and has always loved.
For the past decade, he’s been mostly “clean and sober” but said his attitude has lost him some good jobs and his drinking and bad financial decisions cost him a marriage and a home at one point.
Other people think he has mental health issues.
“My problem is a whole lot better than a whole lot of people around there (Food and Shelter),” he said.
Montgomery said his medication has him stabilized, but he’s getting older and has trouble finding work.
“Nobody hires me,” he said.
There have been times in his life when he was able to help others, and that makes him feel good, Montgomery said. He has hope for the future.
“I think I might have some work lined up,” he said. “It always works out in the long run.”
Bozo Mud, aka Harold Marks, stopped by tables with families and their children to create balloon creatures that he hands out to children. He’s been entertaining children for about 15 years, but this is his first year at the Thanksgiving community dinner.
Mary Emerson said her son, Adam, helped as a volunteer last year. This year, they came to share the meal.
“You get a nice sense of community, even though they’re not family,” Emerson said. “I tell people about it every year.”
Zakk Flash volunteered with his family, including his wife, who served meals while carrying their 7-month-old baby in a sling next to her. Their daughters, ages 8 and 6, also helped.
“It’s a family tradition,” Flash said. “Before we do our family Thanksgiving, we do the community Thanksgiving.”
Many volunteers are here serving food and drinks and clearing tables.
“This is a great response from the community this year,” Flash said.
Betty Morrow said it’s her first year to attend the dinner.
“I had other choices, but I wanted to come here,” she said.
She said she saw a lot of people at the community meal who come to the aging center where she works.
“I just wanted to come out and mix and mingle,” she said, while waving at friends. “The food is good. I really enjoyed the meal.”
“I love turkey and mashed potatoes,” diner Nyle Duncan said. “I come here every year.”
Noah Willyard, a sophomore attending Norman High School, volunteered this year.
“I’m trying to get more involved in community action,” Willyard said.
He often stops by Food and Shelter on his way home from school to talk with the homeless and hear their stories.
“Times are hard,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of homeless people I’ve known from around town (at the dinner).”
Willyard said he also saw teachers he’s had in the past at the dinner working as volunteers.
“One of them (a teacher) has been a mentor at a certain point in my life,” he said. “Then I see him here handing out food to the disenfranchised.”
Those teachers are role models and have always been encouraging, he said.
“I’m the leader of the Young Socialist Club,” Willyard said. “In Norman, there’s two main political parties. Norman is a little island of blue in a sea of red.”
He is not satisfied with either party.
“Both political parties didn’t do much to address the problems of the people,” he said.
The student group has 15 members.
“You can’t have democracy when the playing field isn’t level,” he said. You have to put people over profits. Everyone has someone homeless who lives within a mile.”
Doshier said more than 1,100 meals had been served on site and through Meals on Wheels with nearly 30 minutes of meal service remaining Thursday.
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