Before finding work as a journalist in San Antonio, I was a server for about one year. Each customer is unique. Some are friendly, some refuse to make eye contact, most are perfectly nondescript.
Volunteering Thursday morning at the Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner was the first time I’ve served meals since my heydays as a server. No one was nondescript. Every single person – I lost count after the 30th – smiled and gave thanks or at least a grateful nod. Sure, it’s a free meal, so people are bound to be more friendly. But today the smiles came from a different place. It may come from knowing that even if they came here alone and hungry, they will leave with a full stomach and at least one new friend.
It might be the friendliest place in San Antonio right now, and dinner will be served until 4:30 p.m., so it’s not too late to stop by. There are no income requirements or forms to fill out. If you show up, you will be fed.
More than 25,000 free meals will be served on Thursday thanks to individual and corporate donors, about 4,000 volunteers, and the dedicated Jimenez family who has been carrying on Raul’s legacy for 37 years. It feels good to volunteer and they make it easy. You register, show up, and they tell you what to do. More experienced volunteers will show you how this well-oiled machine works.
As noted earlier this week while on cranberry duty, the coordination required to pull this off is overwhelming to a newbie like me.
“We’re still fine tuning today,” said Art Jimenez, Raul’s grandson, his walkie-talkie at the ready on his hip. “I’m sure next year we’re going to come in with a little bit better plan.”
Volunteers, who show up throughout the day in shifts, gather in a small room away from the massive dining hall. Live music, dancing, and coffee is provided and groups of volunteers are batched out for different duties as needed throughout the day.
This is the only way Art, 30, knows how to celebrate Thanksgiving. He’s been actively involved since he was 10.
“We’re here to have a good time and the guests are first,” Art said. After prayer, ROTC color guard, the national anthem, and words from elected officials, live music begins in the dining hall. People begin to trickle into the large square in front of the stage. “It’s like them coming into our home, we want them to feel welcome.”
Bobby Torres has been a guest of the Jimenez Dinner for more than a decade. He used to come with his mother and father who died four and seven years ago, respectively.
“My parents loved to dance and they have good music,” Torres said.
He always brings his own wine glass to drink Big Red and iced tea out of. I noticed two small bobble-head pilgrims standing on duty at the edge of the table when I set his plate – filled with turkey, gravy, green beans, sweet potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and a bread roll – beside him.
“My wish is…well it’s my turn to get a spouse. A companion and a wife,” Torres said. He’s wearing a suit and a well-made cowboy hat. He’s ready to meet her.
Almost every guest brings with them a small tradition or ritual. One woman in her 80s always comes dressed to the nines, ready for the dance floor, with her walker. Another has been coming to the dinner for more than 20 years after she met her husband here. (See, Bobby? There’s hope.)
The Jimenez Dinner is a cross section of the city, bringing together haves and have nots on both sides of the volunteer line.
These efforts are admirable, but the fact remains that about 20% of San Antonians live at or below the federal poverty level.
I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of world we would live in if the charitable spirit of Thanksgiving and the holiday season carried over to the rest of the year. Then I was reminded of Thanksgiving 365, a fasting initiative that dozens of San Antonians took part in weeks ago.
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There are plenty of other volunteer opportunities in San Antonio during the holiday season and throughout the year.
The same space at the Convention Center will host another holiday dinner on Dec. 17 from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. for the H-E-B Feast of Sharing, where an estimated 15,000 people will receive a free meal.
The San Antonio Food Bank is hosting its annual Great Turkey Challenge 5K on Thursday at 8:30 a.m. Proceeds go toward providing a turkey dinner to families in need. Registration closes at midnight on Monday. The 5K is part of the Food Bank’s Food 4 SA campaign to collect 1 million pounds of food.