Two days before Thanksgiving, dozens of volunteers toiled away in the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center kitchen, preparing for the annual Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner.
San Antonio restaurant owner and businessman Raul Jimenez started the dinner in 1979 to provide Thanksgiving dinners to senior citizens who would have otherwise been alone for the holiday. In its first year, Jimenez and his team served 200 seniors. The event has expanded over the years, and the organization expects to serve around 25,000 people on Thursday. The dinner is open to all, Raul’s daughter Patricia Jimenez said.
“Everyone is welcome,” she said. “Our main audience is seniors, veterans, the homeless, and low-income families, but people who are alone often volunteer and come eat with us.”
A cheerful turkey brooch pinned to her jacket, Jimenez bustled about during preparations Tuesday, thanking people for volunteering and checking in with cooks. Around 4,000 people will volunteer this year, she said. Even U.S. Sen. John Cornyn stopped by briefly on Tuesday morning to help debone turkeys and speak to reporters.
Every year, volunteer shifts fill up within 24 hours, Jimenez said. From Sunday to Thursday, more than 50 hours of preparation, serving, and clean up go into staging the dinner.
“We have a lot of support,”Jimenez said. “Some of these families make it their own San Antonio tradition. We have one lady who I see every year. She’s been doing it for more than 20 years, and all three generations of her family volunteer.”
Volunteers cooked and deboned 550 turkeys, totaling more than 9,000 pounds of turkey to serve on Thanksgiving Day. The dinner also includes 6,250 pounds of stuffing, 6,250 pounds of green beans, 4,688 pounds of yams, 650 pounds of gravy, and 4,688 pounds of cranberry sauce.
Eva Fernandez, one of the head cooks overseeing the process, has worked the Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner for 20 years now, since Raul passed away in 1998.
“Patricia continued to make the dinner,” Fernandez said. “She starts working the whole year, it’s not a one week [project]. Everything is donated. People come and volunteer.”
Several companies from across the city regularly send groups of volunteers, Jimenez said. Jocelyn Graw, a member of the Wells Fargo volunteer group, on Tuesday deboned a turkey with ease. She used to work in the catering and culinary industry, she said, but has never seen this many turkeys at once.
“This is my first year doing it,” Graw said. “It seems like a lot of people volunteer for this. I wouldn’t mind doing it every year.”
The San Antonio chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals recently selected the Jimenez family for its Legacy Award, for their 38 years of providing Thanksgiving dinner to San Antonians. The family will be honored at the association's National Philanthropy Day luncheon in February.