Students from the Justin Wynn Leadership Academy volunteered their time on the Sunday before Thanksgiving to serve seniors at a pre-Thanksgiving dinner prepared by chefs Horace Combs and Bruce King.

Each year, Evanston community groups offer Thanksgiving meals with all the trimmings to those in need. Some groups maintain established traditions, while others start new traditions aimed at providing for people who may not have the means or a place to share in a holiday meal.

Evanston Firefighters Association Local 742 has collaborated with Family Focus program coordinator Joanne Avery for nearly two decades to distribute Thanksgiving dinners to Evanston families who are served by Family Focus, located at 2010 Dewey Ave.

“It’s awesome because these baskets feed our families,” Ms. Avery said, as Evanston firefighter Rob Byrne and his family arrived at Family Focus with the holiday meals.

Funded by the Firefighters Union and coordinated by Firefighter Byrne for the past 16 years, the volunteer effort is an established tradition that fosters a sense of community and creates positive memories. Sandee Byrne, an oncology nurse, has helped her husband with the project every year.

“I was lucky enough to get involved when we were dating,” she said. The couple’s children, 11-year-old Shannon and 9-year-old Jack, also volunteer. “They’ve been coming along since they were babies,” said Ms. Byrne.

The Byrne family joined Evanston Fire Department Captain Matt Grizely, known as “Griz,” and firefighter Steve Huddleston at Fire Station 2 at 702 Madison St. on Nov. 17 to assemble the Thanksgiving bins. The volunteers carefully filled each bin with a turkey and all the trimmings for a Thanksgiving feast, working at a safe distance from firefighters responding to emergency calls.

The heavy-lifting phase of the project came when the team loaded 12 covered bins into the Byrnes’ van for delivery to Family Focus, where grateful recipients picked them up.

On behalf of Family Focus, Ms. Avery expressed her deep appreciation for the long-term support provided by Evanston Firefighters Local 742.  “They do so much for us and our kids. We’re so appreciative. We love you guys. We have history,” said Ms. Avery.

A new Thanksgiving volunteer effort to benefit Evanston seniors took place on Nov. 18 at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, where the gymnasium was transformed by volunteer Della Dotson into an inviting space with elegant table settings and harvest-inspired centerpieces.

More than 125 Evanston residents from Primm Towers Senior Living, Jacob Blake Manor, Foster Senior Club, and Grandparents Raising Grandkids were treated to a Thanksgiving dinner prepared by gourmet chefs Horace Combs and Bruce King. Student volunteers from the Justin Wynn Leadership Academy, who range in age from fifth grade to high school senior, took special care in serving plated meals to the guests. It was an afternoon of delicious food, thanksgiving and celebration.

Planning for the inaugural event began after Mr. Combs, who is a fifth-grade teacher at Willard School, suggested the idea to Evanston community leader George Dotson. Mr. King and Pastor Kenneth Cherry Sr. joined the effort to organize something reminiscent of the events that the four men enjoyed while growing up in Evanston and attending Ebenezer A.M.E. Church.

Like the Byrne family, the Dotson family welcomed the opportunity to volunteer together. Della Dotson did not hesitate to lend her artistry to the event, and the couple’s daughter, Danielle, volunteered in the kitchen. A quote from Maya Angelou perhaps best sums up the benefits of volunteering: “When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed.”

Heidi Randhava

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.