Thanksgiving Day heroes serve hundreds at Missoula’s Poverello Center

Jim Youngblood, a resident of the Poverello Center in Missoula, helps out in the kitchen where staff and volunteers prepared Thursday’s Thanksgiving Day meal. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston

The Detroit Lions kicked off their annual Thanksgiving Day game an hour ago, and the Black Friday rush has been moved up to Thursday, the doors opening in just a few hours.

But the residents at the Poverello Center aren’t interested in football, and chances are they don’t have the funds to go shopping for door-buster sales. Rather, they’re waiting around for a Thanksgiving Day meal, and the shelter’s staff and team of volunteers are hard at work in the kitchen preparing it.

“We’re expecting about 200 to 300 people, maybe more,” said Eric Luongo, the shelter’s kitchen manager. “I’ve been prepping for about three weeks, making close to 40 turkeys and freezing the meat. It’s a lot of prep, and I couldn’t do it without all these volunteers.”

It’s not yet 11 a.m. and the shelter’s kitchen is crowded with volunteers. They peel and slice the eggs, mash the potatoes, wash the vegetables and dish the makings of a turkey stuffing from one pan into another.

Luongo calls it the good stuff, though the work to prepare this day’s offerings began weeks ago. He estimates the shelter will serve close to 1,500 pounds of food, including the 40 turkeys that took several weeks to bake, slice, freeze and thaw.

It’s Luongo’s first Thanksgiving running the kitchen.

“I’ve been here since February, but I’ve been the kitchen manager for three months,” he said. “I love the work. It’s one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had. I get to directly help people in need every day. It’s a real positive environment here in the kitchen, listening to music and making food. I think it helps people destress.”

Today’s early volunteers include Taylor Walters, a staff accountant at the Missoulian. She’s working over a tub of steaming onions and celery, dishing the contents into a pan. It’s the beginning of a stuffing recipe and the kitchen smells of it, tempting those on the prowl.

“My daughter is with her father this Thanksgiving, and I felt I should make myself useful rather than sitting at home by myself,” said Walters. “If I was going to sit around by myself, I might as well go out and help somebody else on a day like today. You remind yourself of all the things you take for granted that maybe you shouldn’t.”

Tracy Woodard also came to help out, given that she doesn’t have family in town. She peeled the hard-boiled eggs, set aside the yolk and readied the deviled eggs.

Volunteers prepare the mash potatoes. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“We thought maybe we could spend the day helping out people who could use our help,” she said, taking a break from her task. “I work over at Providence, and they’re really big on helping out the community. We spend a lot more time trying to get involved in the community, and we think this is a good service.”

Out in the dining room, residents of the Poverello sit at tables, some reading books, some playing cards and some staring off into the distance. One man sat behind dark sunglasses, saying he was in a bad mood and wanting to be left alone.

While many of the residents proved friendly, few wanted to talk about Thanksgiving and what it meant to them. Jim Youngblood, who’s passing from South Dakota to Washington looking for work, said he was thankful for the shelter and his creator.

Youngblood has resided at the Poverello for the past three weeks and today, he’s helping out with the chores. He mops the floor and washes the pans, keeping mostly to himself.

“Everything is going fine,” he said. “It’s Thanksgiving Day. The feast is coming. It’s the feast they celebrate every year.”

While most of the faces are new each year, some are not. Jessie Schraufnagel, the shelter’s program manager, has worked at the Poverello for 13 years. While every day is a busy one, Thanksgiving comes with its own list of tasks.

The work keeps him coming back each day.

“I love giving back to people, and being there to show people that everyone is equal,” he said. “We’re all part of this world and we have to take care of each other. I’ve been here for 13 years and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com