OAKLAND — The cafeteria at Messalonskee High School was bustling with activity Thursday morning as several hundred people sat down for a community Thanksgiving meal and volunteers hustled to bring them hot plates of food, refill coffee cups and deliver desserts.

“Today is a day about sharing with family, friends and neighbors,” said Mike Marston, who co-founded the Messalonskee Thanksgiving Day Community Meal 29 years ago. “We’re blessed to be here and thankful we’re able to. It’s a lot of fun. We see a lot of people who come back year after year, and it’s just a fun time for the community.”

The free community meal, which feeds about 1,300 people each year via both sit-down service and delivery, is a Thanksgiving Day tradition for many who attend.

Along with Marston, Oakland resident Bud King and his family helped start the meal, which was held at a local church before it moved to the high school, and they continue to fund the meal to this day. About 50 turkeys were cooked a day ahead of time on Wednesday and served with sides of cranberry sauce, stuffing, squash, mashed potatoes, vegetables and rolls. Dessert was an assortment of pies — blueberry, apple, cherry and others — and coffee.

“Seeing the people — all my old friends — is the best part,” said Selma Pulcifer, 91, a friend of King’s who was dining with two friends from her church.

More than 100 people volunteer each year to help with cooking and meal delivery. Many stood in line more than 30 minutes to pick up food to deliver to the homebound.

“It makes them feel like they’re not alone for five minutes,” said Stacey Boullette, 27, of Skowhegan, who was waiting in line to pick up meals with her sister, Chelsey Boullette. “Just five minutes is better than nothing.”

Across the room, Rachael McKenney was carrying a tray of pie slices with her youngest daughter, Olivia, strapped to her back. McKenney said her whole family, including her husband, Davis McKenney; her sister, Jenna Nesbit; and her other two children, Kaydence and Liam, have been volunteering since last year and the dinner has quickly grown into a tradition for them.

“I really wanted my kids to get involved with some community service because I wanted them to understand what it meant to be part of a community and not be spoiled,” said McKenney, 29, of Winslow. “Last year I did kind of have to drag them here. When I told them we were doing this, they said, ‘What? We’re not going to sit at home and do nothing all day on Thanksgiving?'”

After volunteering once, though, McKenney said, her older daughter and son, who are ages 9 and 7, had so much fun they were excited about coming back. On Thursday they helped create hand-drawn placemats, rolled silverware and delivered desserts while Davis McKenney helped pack to-go boxes.

“It’s nice to know we do community service in the morning and reach out to the community,” Racheal McKenney said. “My kids are very social, and they like talking and hanging out with everybody. Then later we’ll all go home and have our family time then. It’s a nice balance.”

The meal, open to anyone, draws people from throughout central Maine. In addition to serving the needy, it also helps bring people together who otherwise might be alone, said Mike Perkins, a longtime organizer and volunteer.

“The stories go on and on from different people who come in, and they could buy all the meals they want, but they don’t have anyone at home to have a meal with,” Perkins said in an interview this week.

“It’s only us and we have no vehicles,” said Kathleen Goodwin, who said she borrowed her daughter’s car so she and her son, Michael Goodwin, could attend the dinner.

“It’s awesome,” said Michael Goodwin, 36, pausing between his dinner and a slice of blueberry pie. “Everybody is so friendly and they’re right on top of it. We took a seat and immediately got a meal. And we don’t have to clean up; that’s the good thing.”

At a nearby table, Waterville resident Stuart Reynolds, 74, sat with three stacked take-out boxes — one for a co-worker, one for a neighbor and a third for himself.

The food is good, Reynolds said, and he’s also a fan of the atmosphere. This year he was seated randomly next to a man and his son who turned out to be the son and grandson of a friend of his who had died and whom he had never met before.

“It’s a small world,” Reynolds said. “I live alone, so this is a good chance to get out and be with people. You don’t want to get in a rut.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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