For many of its regulars, the annual free Thanksgiving feast at Chronis’ Restaurant and Lounge in downtown Vancouver is akin to a family reunion.
“You see a lot of people you haven’t seen in a while,” said “Uncle” Robert Sargent, 72, of Vancouver.
You also notice who’s missing. This year, Sargent was sad to see one of the pillars of the Chronis’ Thanksgiving celebration — volunteer photographer “Big Jim” James E. Steiner — was gone.
Restaurateur Chuck Chronis and Clark County Superior Court Judge Rich Melnick, who have been hosting the feast for about 30 years, dedicated this year’s event to “Big Jim.”
Steiner, who died March 31 of cancer at age 65, captured years of memories with his camera at the annual event.
Each year, he took photos of volunteers and guests at the Thanksgiving feast and gifted them the photo as a memento of the day. Guests might be homeless, alone on the holiday, elderly and/or indigent, but under the light of Big Jim’s flash, no one could feel lonely on the holiday, his admirers said.
“I always had my picture taken by him,” said John Heidingsfelder, who has attended the event for the past three years.
Steiner had recently been diagnosed with cancer when he volunteered at the Thanksgiving event in 2012.
“But then we thought he was going to get over it because he went for chemotherapy and radiation,” said his friend, Dennis Walker. Steiner later learned that the cancer had spread to his liver, and he was terminal, Walker said.
“Jim was a loyal, faithful volunteer,” Chronis said. “You couldn’t find a better man.”
And he spread the joy of serving the less fortunate. Steiner invited Walker to volunteer at the philanthropic holiday meal in 2010 after Walker retired and moved back to Clark County from Virginia. The two had been friends since the ninth grade at Evergreen High School.
The photographs were an important part of the Thanksgiving event at Chronis’, Walker said.
The images captured poignant hallmarks of people’s lives, similar to some that unfolded Thursday.
One was the reunion of Melissa Murdock, 26, with three of her five daughters for Thanksgiving Day. It was the first time she’d spent the holiday with her 3-year-old and 4-year-old since 2010.
Her four eldest children were placed in foster care because Murdock had a drug problem. Now in recovery, she has custody of her 8-month-old and hopes to soon regain custody of the 3-year-old and 4-year-old.
“This is the first time I have gotten to spend Thanksgiving with these guys,” she said. Due to her limited financial resources, she had expected to spend the holiday at home with her children but with no holiday fixings.
“This (event) made it really special,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.
About 20 volunteers helped out at this year’s meal. They cooked and served plates of gravy-dressed turkey slices, mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing and pumpkin pie to about 500 people Thursday. Chronis’ wife, Sandy, continued her tradition of handing out gifts of hand-knitted scarves to guests. Santa also made his customary appearance.
A new addition to the festivity was live Christmas music by Daniel Trent. Trent, who plays once a month at Dublin Down Irish Pub next door to Chronis’, saw a banner advertising the Thanksgiving meal. He contacted Chronis and volunteered his musical talents for the event.
“They’re like family here,” Sargent said. “They do all this out of the kindness of their heart, and that’s the way it should be.”
Several other organizations in Vancouver also held free Thanksgiving meals Thursday. Da Kine’s Cafe, Christ Community Church, St. James Catholic Church and Living Hope Church served meals during lunch and early dinner time.
The Knights of Columbus delivered hundreds of meals to seniors, shut-ins and others in the Camas-Washougal area.
The Vancouver Eagles served breakfast Thursday to about 200 people in downtown Vancouver so that those in need could have a second meal at other events later in the day.
Jean Donovan, president of the Vancouver Aerie, began organizing the Eagles breakfast in September and recruited nearly 90 volunteers to help out. The event is a lot of work to organize, but the guests are the “payday,” said Jodi Yukich-Feist, president of the Ladies Auxiliary.
“There was a lady sitting here all by herself,” Yukich-Feist said. “When she was leaving, she was crying. I said, ‘Do you need a hug?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ We hugged for about 10 to 15 seconds. That’s what makes all the effort worth it.”