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Thanksgiving dinner a tradition at Salvation Army

November 21, 2001|By JENNIFER RALTON-SMITH, Staff Writer

If you happened to wander past the local Salvation Army headquarters on Fifth Street in El Centro in the last couple days, you would have noticed the aroma of roasting turkeys.

Since Monday, volunteers have been busy in the Army's large kitchen preparing food for the annual Salvation Army community Thanksgiving dinner.

The Salvation Army has been in the Imperial Valley since 1908 and its free turkey dinner has been a long-standing tradition here.

Capt. Julio Vasquez, commanding officer of the Imperial County Salvation Army, said it takes 120 to 125 volunteers to prepare and serve the dinner and they start with the initial preparation some two weeks before Thanksgiving.

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Moving aside a shopping cart full of freshly baked pumpkin pies and flans donated by local companies, Vasquez helped volunteer Susana Quevedo of El Centro load another large turkey into the industrial-size oven Tuesday morning.

"Individuals and organizations here in the Valley have been very generous helping us put on this dinner, but this year, because of the events of Sept. 11, the donations have slowed," he added.

For the first time The Salvation Army has had to dig deep into funds normally used for other purposes to buy turkeys and many of the fixings for the meal.

Usually all that is taken care of by local donations of cash and turkeys.

Vasquez said he understands that people have felt a need to donate money to the organizations helping the victims of Sept. 11, but the need to help at a local level has not changed.

"We've seen a decrease of 25 to 30 percent in donations coming in and at the same time we've seen an increase of probably 15 percent in the number of people needing our help in the last so many months," Vasquez said Tuesday.

"These figures are very significant for us," he added.

Last year 1,542 meals were served at the Thanksgiving dinner and Vasquez is sure there will be even more meals served this year.

Vasquez is seeing an increase in people locally losing their jobs because stores and companies are not making enough money as a result of economic fallout from the terrorist attacks in September.

He thinks the full impact of this slowing of the economy will not be seen until January.

"Right now people are digging into their savings or having a relative help. People have been hard hit with increased utility bills as well," he added.

"At this stage we're normally loaded down with donations of turkeys and pies but this time it has been very slow."

Vasquez went on to say "Thank goodness Albertson's and Costco came forward and donated a large amount of food, but it's still been a real stretch this year."

The dinner will run from 11 to 2 today at the Salvation Army's offices at 375 N. 5th St. in El Centro.

There will be a Dino Jump set up for children while they're waiting for the meal as well as face-painting activities.

Vasquez said he needed to stress that the Thanksgiving dinner is not just for people without the means to prepare a holiday meal.

"It might simply be that people find themselves alone this Thanksgiving. We would like them to join us as well. That's the whole meaning of Thanksgiving — everyone is welcome."

Standing outside his office Tuesday, Vasquez started to point out where the tables and chairs would be set up for the dinner when a late-model sport-utility vehicle pulled up.

Moments later, Forrest and Ruth Johnson of San Felipe wrestled a large, frozen turkey from the back of their vehicle and carried it to where Vasquez was standing.

"We came north to buy our Thanksgiving supplies and we thought it would be a good idea to buy two turkeys, one for us and one to drop off here, before heading back to Mexico," Forrest Johnson said with a shy smile as he handed over the bird to Vasquez.

As he hurried back to the kitchen with this latest addition to his turkey stash, Vasquez summed up his feelings at what had just happened.

"This is a community-driven event. All the food and cash donations we receive are put back into the community. None of this would be possible without people like the Johnsons."

For further information on how you can donate food or make a cash donation to The Salvation Army, call the local office at 352-4528 or phone 1 (800) SAL-ARMY. You can visit the organization's Web site at www.salvationarmy.org and make an online donation with your credit card. You'll need to specify it is to be used for El Centro command.

>> Staff Writer Jennifer Ralton-Smith can be reached at 337-3442 or dingo87@earthlink.net

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