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Elgin Thanksgiving meal moves to First United Methodist Church

CesiliMendoz16 Elgkisses her little brother Leonardo Mendoz8 months annual ElgCommunity Thanksgiving Dinner held this year First United Methodist Church Thursday

Cesilia Mendoza, 16, of Elgin, kisses her little brother, Leonardo Mendoza, 8 months, at the annual Elgin Community Thanksgiving Dinner, held this year at First United Methodist Church, on Thursday, November 22, 2012. | Michele du Vair~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 24, 2012 7:04AM

ELGIN — Jeff Turner, owner of In the Neighborhood Deli, has over the past four years become the most visible face among many Elgin residents who help put together the Community Thanksgiving dinner.

That dedication to ensuring that everyone who wants to come and spend the holiday eating turkey with all the fixings with neighbors and the community has meant many changes for Turner’s family.

His grandmother, Josephine Briarton, 90, of Carpentersville, also comes to the dinner. As does his wife, Megan, and their two children; his parents, Barb and Don Fischer; his brother, Brian Fischer; and his family from the west-side deli.

It has meant changes to their family gatherings on all sides, said Megan Turner. It has meant making new traditions and remembering that the holiday should be about spending time with family and community, she said.

“I grew up in a family where we went to more than one place for Thanksgiving,” moving from her mom’s side of the family, then her dad’s, during the day, Megan Turner said.

“We had to run around and be flexible,” she said.

Now, while her sister in South Elgin still hosts a family Thanksgiving after the community meal, Thanksgiving for their family means eating with 1,000 family members.

That is how Jeff Turner describes the community meal, which for the first time was served at the First United Methodist Church at 216 E. Highland Avenue. After city budget cuts last year meant no more city of Elgin support for the event, the community dinner was moved out of the Hemmens Cultural Center’s exhibition hall, Turner said.

But it wasn’t much longer after that decision was finalized that First United Methodist elder Carleton Rogers suggested his church’s basement — and its industrial kitchen — for the meal.

“We have added another party to the family, another part of the event,” through the church and its membership, Turner said. “It is just another facet of this dinner that makes it great.”

Moving the dinner did not seem to change attendance number at all, Turner said. The first two years at the Hemmens, Turner thinks volunteers were able to feed 800-900 people, and 1,200 last year. He believes 1,000 people, including 250 volunteers, ate at the church Thursday.

“No one leaves here hungry,” and volunteers have also made the event part of their Thanksgiving tradition, Jeff Turner said.

That includes friends like Candace and Toby Eshelman. They work with Turner at the deli, but also help get the event coordinated. As volunteers, they also printed 250 t-shirts through their company for volunteers to wear Thursday.

Another friend, Anthony Pedote, gets up early to help with the cooking each year.

“They are the dream team,” Turner said of the core group of volunteers. “They do the work.”

In past years, one of the people who got up early to help was Turner’s mother, Judy Fischer. On Thursday, she and Turner’s father got there at about 9:45 p.m. to help set up the dining room.

Having their Thanksgiving dinner with 1,000 other people has meant changes to their family traditions, too, Judy Fischer said. In many ways, it is easier on her because she isn’t cooking a full meal. At the same time, she watches her grandchildren volunteering to help and learning about how to give to their community.

“The way I look at it, Thanksgiving is not about the food. It is about spending time with family and friends. The volunteers get to have a better time, I think, than even the people coming to eat,” Judy Fischer said.

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