Barbara Bechtold and John Tomaro deliver a Thanksgiving meal package to a Mendenhall Valley home on Saturday. The couple, both of whom have lived in Juneau since the 1970s, have made the deliveries and taken part in other volunteer efforts for many years. The estimated 300 to 400 packages being delivered this year are a collaborative effort by St. Vincent de Paul, The Salvation Army, The Glory Hall and other local entities. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire).

Barbara Bechtold and John Tomaro deliver a Thanksgiving meal package to a Mendenhall Valley home on Saturday. The couple, both of whom have lived in Juneau since the 1970s, have made the deliveries and taken part in other volunteer efforts for many years. The estimated 300 to 400 packages being delivered this year are a collaborative effort by St. Vincent de Paul, The Salvation Army, The Glory Hall and other local entities. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire).

Fowl weather friends deliver feasts

Thanksgiving food baskets and communal gathering provide traditional meal for thousands

John Tomaro navigated his van along a slushy narrow street while his wife, Barbara Bechtold, tried to make sense of the non-sequential address numbers on homes to find the next one on her delivery sheet. Lacking a GPS locator map on their dashboard or even her cellphone, they resorted to one of their Thanksgiving holiday traditions of trial, error and occasionally doubling back.

“It usually takes more time to find the people than give them their food,” she said.

After looping around a second time Tomaro located the home on a short side street, pulling up in front of the door while Bechtold dialed the number listed for the address.

“This is your food basket from St. Vincent de Paul,” she said. “Please call us so we can deliver your food today.”

Volunteers load food for Thanksgiving food baskets into vehicles for delivery Saturday morning in the St. Vincent de Paul parking lot. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Volunteers load food for Thanksgiving food baskets into vehicles for delivery Saturday morning in the St. Vincent de Paul parking lot. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

As they prepared to drive off and continue delivering about 10 other Thanksgiving food baskets (a frozen turkey or ham, plus a grocery bag filled with traditional accompaniments), the phone rang almost immediately. He unloaded a turkey and a grocery bag from the rear of the van, while she grabbed a pumpkin pie and the remaining fixings from boxes near the vehicle’s side door.

Their encounter with the person answering the door was brief and essentially the same at every stop.

“You’re all amazing,” he said. “Thank you so much.”

The couple was among about 25 teams of volunteers delivering more than 300 food baskets Saturday throughout Juneau, one of two large-scale communal Thanksgiving dinner efforts to help those in need. The other is The Salvation Army’s annual Thanksgiving Day meal, scheduled to again take place in-person after being restricted to pickups during the COVID-19 pandemic, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Juneau Yacht Club.

This year’s food basket deliveries are a collaborative effort by St. Vincent de Paul, The Salvation Army, The Glory Hall and other local participants. Chris Gianotti, president of St. Vincent’s board of directors, said while helping load bags with food at the program’s main complex last Thursday he expects up to 400 requests for baskets this year.

“It’s a moving target,” he said. “We’ll get calls on Wednesday.”

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire 
Organizers coordinate delivery schedules for Thanksgiving food baskets with about 25 teams of volunteers Saturday morning in a community room at St. Vincent de Paul.

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire Organizers coordinate delivery schedules for Thanksgiving food baskets with about 25 teams of volunteers Saturday morning in a community room at St. Vincent de Paul.

Not all of the requests are from the residents themselves. Counselors and others working with disadvantaged people are encouraged to call St. Vincent’s local administrators if there’s a household that will benefit from a holiday basket.

“People get a basket of food without knowing they’re going to get it,” Gianotti said.

Bechtold, who like her husband moved to Juneau from Outside during the 1970s, said she came to Juneau as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps program and started volunteering at St. Vincent’s thrift store and eventually for the organization’s other projects over the years. She said by now there’s a mix of familiar faces and strangers when she makes annual Thanksgiving food basket deliveries, but there’s usually not a lot of chatter that occurs during dropoffs.

“Most of the time they’re more interested in getting their food,” she said.

But the couple pays close attention to the details for individual households, such as one occupied by a woman in a wheelchair wanting a call with enough advance notice to be ready to answer the door. At another the couple expressed concern the household with nine adults and two children was only getting one ham, which seemed insufficient for a holiday feast. But the woman accepting the parcels thanked the couple heartily and assured them it wasn’t a problem.

The couple was able to deliver to all of the households on their list, but still had some remaining food they returned to St. Vincent’s where the coordination for other deliveries throughout town was ongoing. Gianotti said organizers will provide what help they can to people making last-moment requests for food packages, using food St. Vincent’s normally has available for daily food pantry pickups if no holiday parcels are left.

Stig Cunningham, 17, a Raven Correspondence School Honors Program student, loads a bag with Thanksgiving dinner fixings in a community room at St. Vincent de Paul on Thursday. About a dozen students from the homeschool program helped prepare the hundreds of holiday food packages distributed free to people in need. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Stig Cunningham, 17, a Raven Correspondence School Honors Program student, loads a bag with Thanksgiving dinner fixings in a community room at St. Vincent de Paul on Thursday. About a dozen students from the homeschool program helped prepare the hundreds of holiday food packages distributed free to people in need. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Among those doing the bulk of the preparation of food baskets was Stig Cunningham, 17, one of about a dozen Raven Correspondence School Honors Program students “paid in pizza” to volunteer for this year’s effort. He said he usually celebrates a traditional family Thanksgiving with a potluck at his grandparents’ house where “I bring the green bean casserole,” but helping with the baskets adds an extra element to this year’s holiday.

“I’m thankful for my ability to help other people,” he said.

The communal meal on Thanksgiving Day has taken place at The Hangar on the Wharf in years past, but lingering pandemic difficulties such as staff shortages resulted in this year’s gathering taking place at the yacht club, said Maj. Gina Halverson of the Salvation Army in Juneau.

“It was available for us and they were excited to help us out,” she said.

About 40 to 60 volunteers are expected to help with this year’s meal, which will be served from a buffet line and include turkey smoked by a local expert, pumpkin pie made by the Glory Hall and others, and dishes donated by some local eateries, Halverson said. She said all food is either purchased or provided through donations from the community.

The smoking is being done by Dick Hand, owner of Alaska Seafood Company, who said he will start the 11-hour cooking of the 12- to 14-pound turkeys — 70 of them during one recent year – on Wednesday night. He said he’ll brine the turkeys for about four hours beforehand, and use the same salt and brown sugar seasoning mix he uses for fish and other foods smoked at his facility.

“With turkeys we have a little something extra we do,” he said. “We actually have a humidity control so if the humidity gets down to a certain level in the turkey it stats injecting water into the turkey so it doesn’t dry out.”

Tomaro and Bechtold will celebrate their Thanksgiving at home as usual with family members who are still in Juneau, with the couple doing most of the cooking. And since he’s from Michigan and she’s from Minnesota, both of which have NFL teams playing on the holiday, it means football will also probably figure somewhere in the day’s plans.

“It usually depends on who’s playing,” he said.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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