McHENRY – This was Hampton Austin’s first Thanksgiving away from his family, so the Hattiesburg, Miss., native jumped on a bus from Naval Station Great Lakes, where he’s learning to be an electrician, to have a free dinner at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in McHenry.
“I was thinking about it pretty hard this morning,” the 18-year-old Austin said. “Coming here, it felt good ... it’s my new family.”
Austin, who is a fireman apprentice in the Navy, was one of 160 young sailors who ate turkey, ham, sweet potatoes, green beans, salad, cookies, pie and more the annual Thanksgiving dinner for sailors at the VFW.
McHenry VFW Post 4600, Polish Legion of American Veterans Post 188 and McHenry American Legion Post 491 team up each year to host the sailors. There also was help from the VFW’s men’s and women’s auxiliaries and the Marine Corps League Detachment 1009, and about 100 volunteers.
Ten-year-old Presley Diakow, a fifth-grader at Chauncey H. Duker School in McHenry, helped organize a drive to collect more than 70 turkeys and more than 10 hams to ensure the meal would happen. Organizers were worried they would not have enough food to feed the sailors after several of their traditional suppliers cut back.
Presley was recognized before the dinner by the veterans’ organizations.
Jesus Figueroa, a 22-year-old fireman recruit from Denver, decided to attend so he could have a home-cooked meal.
“It’s better than staying at the barracks,” Figueroa said. “If not, I would have just been bored at the barracks all day.”
He said he enjoyed seeing the cards with drawings thanking sailors for their service. They were made by elementary schoolchildren.
“I thought these were awesome,” Figueroa said. “It feels really good. I’m glad I came.”
Marianne Ruiz is a member of the McHenry VFW and Polish Legion auxiliaries.
“We support them [the sailors], home and abroad, that’s number one,” Ruiz said.
Organizers also wanted to encourage the sailors to be involved with VFWs and American Legions when they leave the military, showing them the groups are community-oriented.
“When they grow up, we want them to be able to give back, because they were given to,” Ruiz said. “We don’t want them to forget that.”
Another aim was to make sure the sailors had a good time and that it felt like they were at home.
Football games were on, there were video games and even karaoke.
“These kids don’t always have a chance to get home,” said Ray Rigsby, commander of the American Legion Post 491. “What we wanted to do is create a family atmosphere, so they could enjoy themselves and have fun.”