Mark Kemp of Portland, wearing the green cap, finishes his plate at Chronis' free Thanksgiving meal. This is the second year Kemp has attended the event.
There was a VIP waiting list Thursday to get into Chronis' Restaurant & Lounge for the eatery's 29th annual Thanksgiving feast offered at no charge to the community.
The venerable downtown establishment on Main Street welcomes anyone who wants to eat, many who are low income or don't have family nearby to celebrate the holiday with. But that's not the case for those who want one of the coveted volunteer positions on "Team Turkey." The team of about a dozen volunteers dish up turkey and stuffing or deliver piping-hot beverages and tempting desserts to tables.
Joining that elite group isn't easy.
"It's like getting into a great country club," quipped volunteer Tiffany Kelly of Vancouver. "It's like somebody has to die or something to get in."
Chuck Chronis, the restaurant's owner, said he turned away at least 50 people who wanted to serve food at the restaurant on Thanksgiving.
"If we don't limit the number of volunteers inside, people are tripping over each other," said Clark County Judge Rich Melnick, who has organized the annual feast with Chronis for the past 29 years. The food is donated by the restaurant and other community donors.
Volunteer Kim Nigg snagged a position this year by pure luck when a slot opened up last minute.
"That's amazing," volunteer Mickey Thompson Giese commented dryly as she hurried a plate over to a table. "It usually takes 10 years (to be allowed to volunteer)."
Giese and her husband, Jerry, have been volunteers at the Thanksgiving shindig for 12 years. She said the volunteer jobs are coveted because they're so rewarding.
"It's so special," she said. "People love it. The funny thing is I think we enjoy it more than the people we serve."
The Gieses and the other volunteers serve people like Richard True, 61, of Washougal. True, who lives on disability, said he couldn't afford to travel to see his family this year. A C-Tran bus driver told him about the free Thanksgiving meal at Chronis', so True decided to try it.
"This is a gift from God, so I am very thankful," True said. "The volunteers are just absolutely wonderful. They make me feel I'm part of the family."
'This is helping us out'
Lori Wilgus and her son, Johnathan Denzer, 12, said they rode their bicycles from their home in Hazel Dell to Chronis' in downtown Vancouver.
"This is helping us out since we only have $17 for grocery money for the rest of the month," Wilgus said. She said she and her son planned to give back to the community by serving food later that day to the homeless at Share, a nonprofit that provides food, shelter and education to the homeless.
Chronis said he expected to serve nearly 600 people during the feast, which began at 10 a.m. and was scheduled to end at 3 p.m.
Melnick said despite the selectiveness of "Team Turkey," other volunteers can feel part of the event by donating pies and other items used in the feast.
The meal at Chronis' was one of a few feasts offered at no charge in the community.
Da Kine's Cafe in Orchards invited families in need to Christ Community Church for Thanksgiving fixings, a giant television screen to watch football, and games such as a cakewalk.
Victor and Kristina Andueza of Vancouver brought their three children, Bradley, 15, Rebecca, 9, and Nathaniel, 2, to the event. Victor Andueza, a painter, recently became unemployed.
"We don't have the money to do Thanksgiving at our home, so this is the best," Kristina Andueza said. "They have a TV, a cakewalk. We love it."