When an event like the Havre Community Thanksgiving Dinner runs smoothly, people can be forgiven for thinking it is accomplished as if by magic, but in reality, it's the product of years of experience and the generosity of many helping hands.
After Debi Rhines agreed to take over as chief organizer of the event in 2011, she was given, she said, a three ring binder with "everything" in it.
The information in the binder includes the purpose statement, shopping lists, contact lists and a schedule detailing when things need to be done, starting weeks in advance of the dinner.
What goes when
The first thing Rhines does for the dinner is contact the anonymous donor, through a go-between, to see if that person wants to host the dinner again. With that OK, she then contacts the people who will run the different divisions of work: the kitchen, the dining room and the deliveries.
Chef Peter Bruni, who is a retired U.S. Air Force chef and former executive chef for a local restaurant owner who had several kitchens and held large functions, said he has been running the kitchen at the community dinner for five or six years, and volunteered for that duty again this year.
Rhines said that with the kitchen taken care of so well, she took over the dining room organization and Gus Sharp came on to handle deliveries, orders, which are phoned in to North Central Senior Center each year.
Rhines also pre-orders a long list of groceries from Gary & Leo's Fresh Foods, charging everything to an account that is billed to the anonymous donor after Thanksgiving Day. Employees at Gary & Leo's order and gather the groceries for pickup the day before the dinner.
Although the dinner is on its second donor, St. Jude Thaddeus Church has housed the event for its 30-some-year history, said long-time volunteer Alan Sorenson. The dinner was originally held in the basement of the church's social hall before the Parish Center was built, so the dinner is booked into the Parish Center's schedule every year.
Of course, one of the other very important duties performed, starting well in advance of the day, is contacting volunteers and, Rhines said, keeping track of those people who contact her without prompting to say they want to help.
"Every day," she said, "someone just calls to say they'll help."
On the eve
Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, is when activity really starts to ramp up, Rhines said.
• The last orders for deliveries are taken and routes finalized by Sharp who said he brought the process into the digital age with GPS location of addresses and a database for tracking and printing route deliveries.
• Volunteers pick up the grocery order at Gary & Leo's and take it to the Parish Center where groceries are divided up, and stored if needed, Rhines said, and different kitchen crews cut vegetables some for the relish trays and others for use in making stuffing, while other volunteers started setting up the dining area.
• After the vegetables are all prepared, volunteers form an assembly line to bag individual servings of vegetables for the delivery meals.
• Between 4 and 5 p.m. crews from Gary & Leo's deliver the turkeys, rolls and pies which were roasted and baked in the bakery ovens that day. The pies are refrigerated, the rolls set aside, and the turkeys are placed in the freezer to cool for a while.
• After the turkeys "rest," the juices are drained from the pans to make gravy - one batch that evening - and the meat is sliced and placed in warming pans that will be pulled from the refrigerator in the morning and heated before serving.
• The stuffing and one batch of gravy is prepared and cans of corn are placed in a warming pan, all to be pulled from the refrigerator and heated first thing the following morning.
The day of turkeys and neighbors
Thanksgiving morning, Rhines said, she arrives early to start ovens, warmers, water and coffee.
• Bruni and volunteers arrive soom after and start food preparations in the kitchen.
"The key," Bruni said, "is staying ahead. If you get behind you never catch up." So he communicates constantly with his servers about whether any food levels are getting low.
• Other volunteers set up the foods for the delivery line, and still more volunteers show up, to work an assembly line putting together the delivery meals and getting them delivered.
This year, scores of people went around and around through the assembly line, chatting. They included families, neighbors, random volunteers and the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team who had just come from practice, one team member said.
"In 45 minutes we just sent out 11 routes, and we're about to send out the 12th," said Tina Columbus, who was assisting Sharp with manging deliveries for 18 routes this year.
• As the last box of deliveries leaves, the dining hall is given final preparation for the meal. Pies are cut up and slices put on plates and stored on carts for serving. The kitchen is tidied, another batch of gravy and potatoes is prepared and turkey warmers are replenished. The relish trays are set out. And volunteers take their places.
• Between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. is the "well-orchestrated chaos" of serving, as it was jokingly described by a handful of volunteers.
• As the last diners leave, leftover food is packaged for donation to Feed My Sheep Soup Kitchen, crews clean the kitchen, dining area and bathrooms to put the Community Thanksgiving Dinner to bed for another year.
Rhines said she plans to keep spearheading the dinner into the foreseeable future.
"To me it's just amazing. I love to be the conduit to make it all happen," she said.
"The last couple of years, I look forward to Thanksgiving. I'm not alone in the kitchen anymore," she said, adding that "it's greater than myself, which is why I like it. It's not such a selfish thing, you know, where you cook and bake for your family only. Those are the people I see every day all the time. I'm 99 percent of the time thankful for them, but when you get to meet people - I saw families come in that absolutely needed this meal. It was huge, and to me that's way more important than any other gift you can give somebody is something they truly need."