By John Rice
Every year, for the past two years, Karen Smith has returned to Howard Mohr Community Center to pick up the free turkey, sweet potatoes, rolls, pies and more the Center provides to feed her family of five.
"It's a beautiful thing," said Smith, who is raising her nieces, who range in age from two to 16.
Smith joined 160 other residents who benefitted from the Center's annual distribution of turkey feasts Nov. 22. Just one day before the big holiday, Center staff covered 20 tables with fixings for Thanksgiving, filled three shopping carts to the brim with birds and also served up pancake mix, pasta and sauce for additional meals. Linden House senior residence received 45 boxes of food alone.
About 20 volunteers stopped by 7640 Jackson Blvd. to coordinate the effort, which included hand-delivering boxes of goodies and keeping track of recipients like Smith who stopped by in-person to pick up their groceries. Director Karen Dylewski said the Center solicited volunteers by sending letters to schools and putting the event on Facebook. Staff and volunteers spent more than four hours organizing and delivering food.
Commissioners Rachell Entler and Joe Byrnes were among those who volunteered their time, and raked in their kids and grandkids to join the effort.
Judy Koepp from a nearby western suburb also helped deliver boxes of food, just like she has for the past five years.
"The families are so friendly and appreciative," Koepp said. "They share their holiday stories with us. We meet so many great people."
Koepp loaded about 20 boxes into her van. She said she grew up in Forest Park, still has relatives who work in the local fire department and was childhood friends with Dylewski.
"It's Forest Park do or die for us," Koepp said. "It's in our blood."
Helping the community is in the blood of many residents.
Ed's Way Food Mart donated turkeys and other food to the effort. St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church collected food from the congregations and made monthly deliveries to the Center. Various local condo buildings placed boxes in public spaces, so residents could easily donate food. And, the Forest Park Public Works department picked up it all up, and transported donated food to the Center.
Firefighters from the Forest Park fire department also helped load food boxes into volunteer's vehicles. Not only did firefighters lend their muscle, but they also presented the Center with a check for $400 to help buy food.
Leftover turkeys from Thanksgiving will be saved and given away at Christmas. Recipients like Smith are automatically eligible to receive Christmas dinners. Dinners will include ham and all the fixings, as well as toys collected by the village and McGaffers Saloon.