The first volunteers for the Community Fellowship Dinner got to the kitchen at 6 a.m. Thursday and got to work sterilizing pans, carving turkey and putting food in the ovens for the hundreds of people that would soon gather at Hermiston High School for a Thanksgiving meal.

Not 24 hours earlier, they’d been staring at a problem: clogged drains, which stopped them from washing dishes and prepping turkeys.

With 40 birds to prepare for the next day’s Community Fellowship Dinner, they didn’t miss a beat, instead working ahead on other parts of the meal until plumbers arrived.

Despite the hiccup, things were running smoothly again the next morning, with volunteers bustling in the kitchen and finding things to do.

“We are so far ahead it’s scary,” said co-kitchen manager Jan Cassens.

Cassens and co-kitchen manager Heather Smart have worked to make sure the event is a well-oiled machine for volunteers. They start meeting in September to figure out what they already have and what they’ll need for the year’s event.

“Being a couple of months in advance makes it so much easier when dealing with volunteers and the donated dollar,” Cassens said.

This year, there were at least 100 volunteers total, about 30 of which were helping in the kitchen. They cooked mashed potatoes, carved turkey and plated pies.

The event has been going on for more than 30 years, but draws new helpers annually.

Many of the kitchen volunteers were learning on the job Thursday morning.

“Someone dropped off a poster at my work,” said Salvador Zeferino, a new volunteer who was arranging plates of pie on a serving rack. “I just wanted to spend time and help out in any way I can.”

He said he hoped more people would show up to help, and to eat.

“I think it’s important that everyone volunteer,” he said. “Not everyone’s fortunate enough to have family to go to. It’s understanding that, and helping out.”

Mike Chrismon and his 16-year-old granddaughter, Kora Tretteen, showed up on Thursday morning ready to help. They quickly got to work in the kitchen, helping prep mashed potatoes.

“I heard about this through the high school,” Tretteen said. “It’s something people are really proud of.”

Cassens and Smart are both longtime volunteers, and both fell into their roles unexpectedly.

“Five years ago, I walked in and they said ‘Oh yay, a cook,’” Smart said. “I just started cooking from the beginning.”

Though she had prior experience in the kitchen, Smart said she wasn’t ready for the volume of food they have to prepare for the meal.

This year, she wasn’t able to work as usual — she was sidelined by a burst calf muscle, and pushed herself around the room in a wheelchair, advising and directing other volunteers where she could.

Cassens has been there for 17 years, and said she’s enjoyed seeing the families that come back.

“We must be on third generation now,” she said.

Tom Marks, who was carving turkeys, said he joined in 1992.

“I started out with a fellow who used me as his seeing-eye dog,” Marks said. “He was blind from macular degeneration. But he still cut turkeys faster and better than anyone.”

Smart said they hope to bring more people in, especially now that they have the meal at the high school — a larger venue than the senior center.

Community businesses also contributed to the meal. Safeway sold turkeys at a discounted price, and Walmart and Fiesta Foods both donated items. Shari’s donated pies.

As the clock ticked closer to 11, more volunteers got busy, carrying plates of food and chatting with guests.

Jason Haigh said this was his first year volunteering, and that his wife had told him about the event.

He was carrying cups of tea and coffee to a couple of veterans seated at a table, and spent some time talking with them.

“They’re telling me stories about serving our country,” he said.

Haigh said he was pleased to be helping out.

“It’s about family, and making sure everyone’s happy,” he said. “Creating those smiles.”

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