Giving back: Volunteers flock to Reeths-Puffer High School to hand out Salvation Army Thanksgiving dinners

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By Tony Wittkowski | Reporter | MLive – Muskegon Chronicle

MUSKEGON, MI — The smell of turkey was welcoming as one walked up to the parking lot at Reeths-Puffer High School on Thursday, Nov. 27.

Students, parents, faculty and other volunteers spent their Thanksgiving morning and afternoon visiting homes in different regions around Muskegon County by handing out Salvation Army meals.

Dan Sawka, captain of the Salvation Army located on 1221 Shonat St., said there were enough paper bags to serve 2,000 meals to the community. Those bags included turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, gravy and a roll.

“For years this is what a lot of people do,” Sawka said. “They get up, they put their own turkey in the oven and then they come down to Reeths-Puffer and they help the Salvation Army. This has been a family tradition for many people for many years.”

Volunteers spent their Thanksgiving morning and afternoon visiting homes in different regions around Muskegon County by handing out Salvage Army meals on Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014. (Tony Wittkowski | MLive.com)

Volunteers spent their Thanksgiving morning visiting homes in different regions around Muskegon County by handing out Salvation Army meals. (Tony Wittkowski | MLive.com)

With stacks of green chairs encapsulating the soon-to-be filled bags, Muskegon County residents stood in line and waited.

The scene of hundreds gathering together to help an entire county is something Sawka looks forward to every year.

“One of the saddest things is that a person can’t have that Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving,” Sawka said in reference to the famous family portrait. “We’ve all grown up seeing the pictures and that iconic turkey on the table. I just want that to be shared for those who have never had it.”

The line of volunteers snaked around the cafeteria and doubled back, where at the end of the line was the Gergen family.

The five-membered family is new to the area and decided to take part in its first food drive in the area. The Gergens’ stop took them to Muskegon Heights, where they handed out 19 different meals to at least seven different families.

“Our Boy Scout troop made us aware of this opportunity and we wanted to give back to the community,” said Robb Gergen, who was joined by his wife and three children. “We’ve witnessed first-hand people who are less fortunate and wanted to give back.”

Muskegon resident and former Muskegon County Sheriff Robert Carter was on hand to see what was started more than 20 years ago. Carter was an integral part of the process in creating the current partnership between the high school and the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army was holding the annual event in a small kitchen in its building before moving to the larger venue. After Reeths-Puffer’s current school was built, Carter went to the school board and helped join the movement.

“I think the community knows how important it is,” Carter said. “We’re always looking for volunteers. There is always something for somebody to do.”

Smiling faces could be seen walking out of the high school with bags of food in their arms. Amid the cluster of dishes and food assembly lines was Ralph Lemieux.

Behind the scenes, Lemieux was helping set up the stations and was involved in cooking the coveted turkeys.

The Twin Lake resident has been at it for more than a decade alongside his wife, who has helped coordinate the cohesion between Reeths-Puffer and the Salvation Army for the yearly effort.

“It’s a lot of work and it’s hot and sweaty,” Lemieux said of the process. “Personally, I appreciate the opportunity to be able to do this. To me, it’s special because you don’t see this kind of an effort anywhere anymore.”

Tony Wittkowski is a staff reporter at MLive Muskegon Chronicle. Email him at twittkow@mlive.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 27, 2014)

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