After cooking 28 turkeys and hundreds of hours preparing, the Community Thanksgiving Dinner will again take place Thanksgiving Day at the St. John’s Lutheran Church in Black River Falls.

Linda and Karen Hardwick have been leading the Community Thanksgiving Dinner in Black River Falls since it began 23 years ago, when a meager 19 people showed up.

“The first year we served 19 meals as a youth project. We had gotten people from River Grove apartments, which is where we started, and a few other people and it just kind of kept growing,” Linda Hardwick said.

After outgrowing the church building, the dinner moved to the Miles-Hagen Post 200 Legion Hall and then the Black River Falls armory after again needing more space. When security tightened up at the armory and the dinner couldn’t be held there anymore, the dinner was moved back to the church after a new fellowship hall and kitchen were built.

This year they are expecting to serve 650 meals, which takes a lot of prep work that starts just as soon as it ends.

“We actually start thinking of next year as we are cleaning up this year because we take inventory of everything and start figuring out what did we use, how much do we need – that sort of stuff,” Linda Hardwick said adding that most of the major work starts in September.

As far as cooking the 28 turkeys, Linda Hardwick said that they have a lot of turkey fairies that help.

“We do them all in Nesco roasters. That works really well and then in the afternoon when the turkeys are done we have people come in, we cut it up, get it off the bone, put it in the refrigerator and get ready to do it again the next day,” Linda Hardwick said adding that the process begins on Monday of Thanksgiving week and goes until Wednesday.

Sometimes the turkey count is off though, but the problem tends to fix itself.

“There are times when we say we have enough turkeys, and somebody wants to donate turkeys,” Karen Hardwick said. “It was a good thing that somebody offered to donate more than what we needed because we did actually need those turkeys.”

All of the food is now ordered by the case because of the amount of meals they have to serve.

“We used to do donations and quickly had to go beyond that to make sure we had everything we needed and for sanitation and health purposes so that we had control over what was being cooked,” Linda Hardwick said.

After 23 years, the Hardwicks definitely have some stories to tell.

“We had a family one year that they were traveling, their car broke down, they were at one of the motels and they had children. Not only was their car broke down—they were sick. They called and asked to get meals so we were able to give them a Thanksgiving despite all of the other things going on,” Linda Hardwick said.

A different year something special happened when two men that were traveling through had found out about the dinner and so stopped in for a meal.

“We were at the point where we were starting to clean up, and somebody said, ‘Let’s just see what we can get together for them.’ We opened one of the refrigerators and we had two dinners that had been setup in delivery boxes that for some reason hadn’t been delivered,” Linda Hardwick said. “We were able to give them a full meal.”

Linda Hardwick said that there are many reasons people come to the dinner, which is why the dinner keeps happening.

“In a way it is an outreach, and a way to fill a need that I don’t think everybody is aware is there. It is not just families that can’t afford it or people that can’t afford it, but you have an older couple that it is difficult to do a full Thanksgiving meal or people that are not going to be around family – it gives them an opportunity to be around other people,” Linda Hardwick said.

Even after 23 years and the hours of hard work it takes to put on the dinner, Linda and Karen Hardwick can’t see themselves spending Thanksgiving any other way.

“After 23 years, I just can’t imagine not doing it. It is so fulfilling,” Linda Hardwick said. “We’ve had families already that have shown up and have said, ‘I lost my job – if it weren’t for this my kids wouldn’t have had a Thanksgiving.’ That’s the reason.”

Karen Hardwick echoed that sentiment, “I like to help other people. I feel that there is a need out there. There are lonely people or people that can’t even afford it. I just like to give back to them and make sure they have a good Thanksgiving dinner. It makes you feel good to know that somebody benefits from this.”

Even though Linda and Karen Hardwick do a lot of work for the dinner, they both said the volunteers are a great help.

“The volunteers that come forward – it is just phenomenal. When we need the volunteers there are plenty of volunteers here to help us,” Karen Hardwick said adding that they will have about 100 volunteers this year.

Some of the volunteers come from St. John’s Lutheran Church or from the requests put out looking for volunteers.

“It is not unusual that we get people that come back year, after year, after year. Once they’ve done it, it is just so satisfying that they come back again,” Linda Hardwick said. “The volunteers are awesome. Everybody does their part. People always think they can’t do that much. It is a matter of any little thing helps tremendously. They don’t realize that even if they ran to the store for us to get something—that is a huge help.”

Even though Thanksgiving Day is full of work for Karen and Linda Hardwick, they have now made the Community Thanksgiving Dinner their Thanksgiving Dinner.

“This is our Thanksgiving. We will sit down together with a couple of friends or something and have our dinner, and then afterwards we like to go home and have a bottle of wine just to relax,” Karen Hardwick said acknowledging that planning for next year tends to be a point of conversation as the bottle empties.

The Black River Falls Community Thanksgiving Dinner is supported by monetary donations only since the dinner is free, so if you would like to give please call 715-284-4657 or 715-896-0409. Linda and Karen would also like to thank Stone’s Throw, Duane Bowen and Chuck Torgerson for their support every year.

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Jackson County Chronicle editor

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