GARDINER — Like a chef at a fine-dining restaurant, once Vinny Lord felt like things were under control enough in the kitchen at Gardiner Area High School, he went into the dining room to work the crowd, make sure they liked their mostly made-from-scratch turkey dinner, and shake hands with nearly everyone who came to the Scottish Rite Masons of Kennebec Valley’s 23rd annual free community Thanksgiving dinner.

“I appreciate you all coming,” Lord said to a table of senior citizens from Farmingdale, then, noticing Arthur Bonenfant’s hat indicating he is a veteran of the Korean War, adding, “I appreciate your service. How’s the food, OK?”

The 87-year-old Bonenfant said the food, which included slices of turkey cut from one of 17 birds cooked by volunteers in their homes beforehand and potatoes peeled and mashed that morning by some of the more than 60 volunteers, was “great.” He also said it’s great that so many people volunteered their time to put on the dinner.

Lord, of Windsor, said getting a chance to talk to the diners at the meal, which he has helped put on since it started in 1995, is his favorite part of Thanksgiving.

Karen and Mike Bechard, of Pittston, one team of a dozen volunteer delivery drivers who packed up their vehicles with take-out boxes full of turkey and all the fixings to deliver to people in the area who either couldn’t or didn’t want to come to the high school for the meal, also said talking to grateful people getting the meals is a highlight of the day for them.

“People really appreciate it. It’s fun. It’s great to be able to visit with them. Some of the elderly folks will bring you right into their home to talk with you a bit,” said Karen Bechard whose father, Duane Tobey, and 25-year-old daughter, Kaylee Heath, were already out delivering meals themselves. The family has been helping deliver meals for the last seven years. They both said they enjoying doing it, even though, this particular Thanksgiving, that meant delivering meals in record-setting cold weather.

“You just need to keep the truck running,” Mike Bechard said.

Bonenfant said in the past he’s had a meal delivered to his home, but this year he and a group of friends, most of them members of the Oldies But Goodies Senior Center who meet Thursdays at the Boys and Girls Club in Gardiner, went to the dinner together and planned to play a game of Rummikub together after they ate.

Bonenfant’s sister, 89-year-old Simone Lavallee, came to the dinner with him for the first time this year. She said her daughter, who lives in New Hampshire, wasn’t able to come to visit until Friday, so she went to the dinner with her brother on Thanksgiving. She said the dinner was great.

Larry Perkins, of Readfield, has helped put on the dinner each of its 23 years, including the last 18 years as chairman of the event for the Masons. The Masons also put on a similar dinner in Farmington, so the group serves as many as 1,000 people on Thanksgiving.

While the Masons paid for the food for the event, which included 200 pounds of potatoes, 150 pounds of squash and 80 pounds of peas, Perkins, who has been a Mason for 50 years, said many of the people who come to volunteer have no connections to the Masons. He said they just want to come help others. He said it has never been hard to find volunteers, and some years they even have more help than they need, though he said it’s important to give every volunteer a role because they want to help. He said roughly half the volunteers work the event with their families.

“It’s a treat to see people bring their children, and their grandchildren, to help,” the 76-year-old Perkins said. “It gives them an opportunity to do something together as a family and teach the youth what it means to help other people.”

Perkins said the 17 turkeys carved up for the event were cooked during the previous week by members of his church in Readfield, and the meat was reheated Thanksgiving morning. He acknowledged serving processed turkey, artificial potatoes and pre-made stuffing would be easier and faster, but said they preferred to be genuine and serve the real things, even if it means a bit more effort.

Some years the community dinner, between deliveries and people coming to eat at the high school, has fed around 500 people. Perkins said Thursday they expected to deliver 275 to 300 meals and have another 75 to 100 people come in, though the crowd was smaller than in most years, it seemed, possibly because of the cold weather.

Kevin Campbell, of Dresden, who coordinates the deliveries, said most delivery routes aren’t long, so the meals probably wouldn’t get too cold by the time they were delivered. And diners, he noted, could always reheat them at home. One driver came back, after dropping off the assigned meals and said that during a dropoff at a housing complex, the driver was greeted by someone who said the place needed nine meals, but nobody had put in an order. Volunteers quickly filled nine take-out boxes and sent them out.

Kelly Perry delivered 78 meals with her husband, Andy and adult daughter Jennifer in the Augusta area, with 20 meals each going to senior citizens at Chateau Cushnoc and Hodgkins School Apartments, two of their planned 18 stops. They planned to have their own meal together later in the day, after making their deliveries.

Some meals were sent to the staff at the Togus veterans hospital and workers at local police and fire departments, to show appreciation for them working on Thanksgiving.

Perkins said any leftovers from the meal would be given to Bread of Life Ministries, which operates a soup kitchen and a homeless shelter in Augusta.

Lord, who arrived with some of the other volunteers to start work around 6:30 a.m., said having Gardiner Area High School’s industrial kitchen available for the event every year is a blessing, both because the kitchen’s steamers and other large pieces of cooking equipment make it possible to prepare large quantities of food at once, and because having the event at the same location every year means people know where to go for a hot meal on Thanksgiving.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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