Full of Thanks
A group of Hilton Head Island early settlers-or let's just call them "Lowcountry pilgrims," discovered 15 years ago, if you prepare a traditional Thanksgiving dinner that is free and open to the public, people will come and come and come.
For those who are visiting, new residents, or have just had their heads buried in the firmly packed Hilton Head sand, they've been missing out on one of the island's great gifts. It's called the Community Thanksgiving Dinner, and since the inaugural breaking of bread, it has been hosted and sponsored by St. Andrew By-The-Sea United Methodist Church and Hudson's Seafood House on the Docks. Deep Well Project has been the recipient of donations since the first dinner, as many people who attend give money to the private social service agency on Hilton Head.
What's on the menu for this hungry crowd of roughly 1,500 people? Eighty-five turkeys, 30 hams, 350 pounds of potatoes, 300 pounds of sweet potatoes, 300 pounds of stuffing, 40 pounds of gravy and 250 pies. Feast your eyes on the scene that takes place at Hudson's, the landmark restaurant off Squire Pope Road and on Skull Creek. By midday, there's a line of people that snakes around the restaurant and spills into the parking lot. Everyone gathers for a common cause, to enjoy a traditional family-style Thanksgiving meal, complete with that uncomfortable, universal feeling of overeating that comes with the territory on Thanksgiving. Old friends reunite and newcomers feel as welcomed as dinner at Grandma's house.
The event dates back to 1998, when word got out through an article in the local paper that there was no organized community dinner for all the "Thanksgiving orphans." A small group of Hilton Head community leaders took notice and Executive Director of Deep Well, Betsy Doughtie, who was quoted in the article, began fielding calls by those who wanted to help. "It just shows the whole spirit of Hilton Head and how people think so much of this community and have such a good time at the dinner and offer their help," said Betsy, who continues to be the agency's executive director.
Brian and Gloria Carmine of Hudson's stepped up to the plate, offering their restaurant (which had been closed on Thanksgiving) and the preparation of the meal. St. Andrew By-the-Sea came on board as the sponsor who raises money to pay for the food. Deep Well was brought into the mix from day one as a place where people can donate money. Over the years, the day's donations have been as much as $8,500. Money is put in jars that are placed on diners' tables.
"It's been a remarkable experience all the way around," said Brian, who has passed on meal preparation to his son, Andrew Carmine. "The response from the community has been phenomenal. From the church, to all the volunteers, to the folks on our staff who do all the preparing, there's just a feel good kind of thing about the whole experience." Andrew, General Manager of Hudson's, said the staff begins preparing about three days ahead. Dinner is from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. The average wait can be at least one hour, while some eager eaters begin lining up by 9 a.m., guaranteeing them the first seating of the day, said St. Andrew member Gloria LaCoe, who co-chairs the event with her husband, Allan LaCoe.
"No one is turned away," Gloria said. "I've had someone say, 'I just saw somebody pull up in a Mercedes. Do you think they should be here?' Yeah, they should be here. They probably are lonely and want to be around somebody. That was the real reason why this got started." At last year's meal, diners represented 35 states and 11 South Carolina counties, according to a survey conducted by volunteers. During the first year, about 500 people came to the dinner, Gloria LaCoe said. By the second year, the number ballooned to a four-hour capacity 1,500, and it has stayed at capacity since. "One year a retired general came in in his marine uniform," Gloria LaCoe said. "When he came in, everyone stood up and applauded. It just brings tears to your eyes."
Volunteer workers also have come out in great numbers since the first year. About 400 people-most who stay for the meal-give their time anywhere from two to four hours. Jobs range from distributing name tags, driving golf carts that take people from the parking lot to the restaurant, and serving as hosts and hostess at the tables. A Boy Scout troop stays for clean up. A cab company transports homeless people to the dinner. Although all the jobs for volunteer are covered, Gloria LaCoe said some of the diners like to come only if they can help out, "So you kind of end of making positions for people so they would come."
"It's a great community event," Andrew added. "Because it's family-style, you might be seated with someone from an entirely different socio-economic class and background and you can learn from other people. That's the true definition of community."
For more information on the annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner, or to volunteer or in need of a ride to the dinner, call 843-505-1370 or go to www.CommunityThankgiving.com