CRYSTAL LAKE – Laurie Stewart and Nelly Chmiel took their time Wednesday enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner a day early at The Salvation Army in Crystal Lake.
They were two of many to stop by the organization’s annual Thanksgiving dinner. People from throughout the Crystal Lake area donated food and their time – either serving, setting up or greeting guests.
This was the third annual community Thanksgiving dinner held by the group. The meal was open to anyone, including those who weren’t able to prepare their own holiday meal, according to The Salvation Army website.
Chmiel is Stewart’s caregiver and was her plus-one to the dinner.
“I was here last year. I loved it,” Stewart said. “That’s why I’m back.”
About 11:30 a.m., the pair were some of the first ones to enter the gymnasium-cafeteria room in The Salvation Army’s facility at 290 W. Crystal Lake Ave.
“There were a few teenage girls who greeted us when we came in,” Chmiel said. “It was very welcoming.”
Chmiel and Stewart took their seats, and during more than an hour at the table, they were joined by a handful of different volunteers at different times.
This was not unique. Throughout the room, volunteers sought to engage the visitors in conversation, not only to serve them and leave.
“The camaraderie, the local people, the local volunteers,” Stewart said. “The warmth – you can really feel it.”
“All warm and fuzzy,” Chmiel said.
“Like you’re part of the family,” Stewart said.
Between 10:30 and 11:15 a.m., people were dropping off meals. Many of the items were catered. The pair agreed it might be better than what some can cook at home.
“The stuffed turkey,” Stewart said, when asked her favorite dish. “With the stuffing in the middle.”
Chmiel didn’t want to choose a favorite.
“The whole thing, really,” she said. “It all went together. If I said one thing, I’d be leaving out another.”
Kitchen and setup volunteers started as early as 7 a.m. Wednesday. The dinner was held from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Cleanup was expected to last until 6 p.m.
The McHenry County Department of Health does not allow the organization to cook on the premises for such a large group. The health department stopped by, however, to make sure everything was up to code. A certificate was placed on the wall near the front of the buffet arrangement before the start of dinnertime.
Attendees could be seen leaving with to-go boxes filled by volunteers.
“What an extension of generosity,” Chmiel said.
The rest of the building was humming with activity, too. People were dropping off toy donations for the holiday season.
Between Thanksgiving and Dec. 13, The Salvation Army Crystal Lake Corps will be ringing bells outside of 51 places throughout McHenry County. The red kettle campaign is The Salvation Army’s biggest fundraiser of the year.
Capt. Carol Lewis said the staff books volunteers for 3,005 hours of bell-ringing. Meeting the hour goal all but guarantees that The Salvation Army will meet its holiday fundraising goal of $200,000.
“The community really owns that program,” Lewis said. “We have the only all-volunteer bell-ringing operation in The Salvation Army’s Chicagoland division.”