Poultry lovers deliver feasts – Juneau Empire | Team Cansler

Barbara Bechtold and John Tomaro deliver a Thanksgiving meal package to a home in the Mendenhall Valley on Saturday. The couple, both of whom have lived in Juneau since the 1970s, have been doing deliveries and participating in other volunteer endeavors for many years. The estimated 300 to 400 packages to be delivered this year are a collaborative effort between St Vincent de Paul, The Salvation Army, The Glory Hall and other local organizations. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire).

John Tomaro drove his van down a muddy narrow street while his wife, Barbara Bechtold, tried to understand the non-sequential address numbers on houses to find the next one on her delivery note. Not having a GPS locator map on their dash or even their phone, they resorted to one of their Thanksgiving holiday traditions of trial, error, and the occasional double-back.

“It usually takes longer to find people than it does to give them their food,” she said.

After a second loop, Tomaro located the house down a short side street and stopped outside while Bechtold dialed the number given as the address.

“This is your lunch basket from St. Vincent de Paul,” she said. “Please give us a call so we can deliver your food today.”

Volunteers load Thanksgiving grocery baskets into vehicles for Saturday morning delivery in the St. Vincent de Paul parking lot.  (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Volunteers load Thanksgiving grocery baskets into vehicles for Saturday morning delivery in the St. Vincent de Paul parking lot. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

As they prepared to drive off and continue to deliver about 10 more Thanksgiving grocery baskets (a frozen turkey or ham plus a grocery bag of traditional accompaniments), the phone rang almost immediately. He unloaded a turkey and a grocery bag from the back of the van while she retrieved a pumpkin pie and the remaining ingredients from boxes near the vehicle’s side door.

Her encounter with the person who answered the door was brief and essentially the same at each stop.

“You are all incredible,” he said. “Thank you very much.”

The couple were among about 25 teams of volunteers who delivered more than 300 food baskets across Juneau on Saturday, one of two large-scale collaborative Thanksgiving dinner efforts to help those in need. The other is The Salvation Army’s annual Thanksgiving, which is set to return in-person after being limited to pickups during the COVID-19 pandemic, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Juneau Yacht Club.

This year’s food basket deliveries are a joint effort by St. Vincent de Paul, The Salvation Army, The Glory Hall and other local participants. Chris Gianotti, president of the St. Vincent board, said as he helped load bags of groceries at the program’s main complex last Thursday, he expects as many as 400 requests for baskets this year.

“It’s a moving target,” he said. “We’ll be called on Wednesday.”

Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire organizers coordinate Thanksgiving food basket delivery schedules with about 25 teams of volunteers Saturday morning in a common room in St. Vincent de Paul.

Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire organizers coordinate Thanksgiving food basket delivery schedules with about 25 teams of volunteers Saturday morning in a common room in St. Vincent de Paul.

Not all inquiries come from residents themselves. Counselors and others working with disadvantaged people are encouraged to call local St Vincent’s Council if there is a household that would benefit from a holiday basket.

“People get a basket of food without knowing they’re going to get it,” Gianotti said.

Bechtold, who like her husband had moved to Juneau from outside in the 1970s, said she came to Juneau as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps program and began working at the St. Vincent thrift store and eventually through the years to commit to the organization’s other projects. She said there’s now a mix of familiar faces and strangers when she delivers the annual Thanksgiving food baskets, but there’s not usually much gossip that takes place during the delivery.

“Most of the time, they’re more interested in getting their food,” she said.

But the couple pays close attention to the details for individual households, such as one occupied by a woman in a wheelchair who wants a call with enough notice to be ready to answer the door. At another, the couple expressed concern that the household of nine adults and two children only got one ham, which wasn’t enough for a holiday celebration. But the woman who took the packages warmly thanked the couple and assured them it was no problem.

The couple were able to deliver to all the homes on their list but still had some groceries left over, which they took back to St. Vincent’s, where coordination was underway for other deliveries across the city. Gianotti said organizers will help people who request last-minute grocery packages and will use groceries that St. Vincent’s normally has available for daily grocery pickups in the pantry when there are no more holiday packages left.

Stig Cunningham, 17, a student in the Raven Correspondence School Honors Program, loads a bag of ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner in a common room in St. Vincent de Paul on Thursday.  About a dozen homeschool program students helped prepare hundreds of Christmas lunch boxes that were distributed free to those in need.  (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Stig Cunningham, 17, a student in the Raven Correspondence School Honors Program, loads a bag of ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner in a common room in St. Vincent de Paul on Thursday. About a dozen homeschool program students helped prepare hundreds of Christmas lunch boxes that were distributed free to those in need. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Among those who prepared the bulk of the food baskets was Stig Cunningham, 17, one of about a dozen Raven Correspondence School Honors Program students who were “paid in pizza” to volunteer for this year’s effort. He said he usually celebrates a traditional family Thanksgiving with a potluck at his grandparents’ house, where “I bring the green bean casserole,” but helping out with the baskets adds an extra element to this year’s holiday.

“I’m grateful for my ability to help other people,” he said.

The Thanksgiving Day meal together has been held at The Hangar on the Wharf in previous years, but ongoing pandemic concerns such as staff shortages meant this year’s gathering was held at the yacht club, said Maj. Gina Halverson of the Salvation Army in Juneau.

“It was available to us and they were excited to help us,” she said.

About 40 to 60 volunteers are expected to help with this year’s meal, which will be served from a buffet and will include smoked turkey, pumpkin pie from Glory Hall and others, as well as dishes donated by some local restaurants, Halverson said, a local expert said. She said all food is either purchased or provided through community donations.

The smoking will be done by Alaska Seafood Company owner Dick Hand, who said he will start cooking the 12- to 14-pound turkeys for 11 hours on Wednesday night — 70 of them in one of the past few years. He said he will soak the turkeys in brine about four hours beforehand and use the same seasoning mix of salt and brown sugar that he uses for fish and other foods smoked at his facility.

“With turkeys, we have a little something extra,” he said. “We actually have humidity control. When the moisture in the turkey drops to a certain level, water is injected into the turkey to keep it from drying out.”

Tomaro and Bechtold celebrate Thanksgiving as usual at home with family members who are still in Juneau, with the couple doing most of the cooking. And since he’s from Michigan and she’s from Minnesota, both of whom have NFL teams on the holidays, that means football will likely show up somewhere in the day’s schedules, too.

“It usually depends on who’s playing,” he said.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com


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