Pictured is the inaugural committee of the Yankton Community Feast, left to right: Donna Madson, Marlene and the late Steve Johnson, Don Edwards and Cliff Madson.

Thanksgiving is a time for many to get family and friends together for food and fellowship, giving thanks for the blessings in their life. Our community is fortunate enough to have an evening of food and fellowship held the night before Thanksgiving, the Yankton Community Feast, open to everyone to warm their stomachs and their hearts.

Ten to twelve members serve on the Yankton Community Feast committee and I was fortunate to speak to a few of them about the remarkable meal. Donna and Cal Carlson, Don “Murdo” Edwards, the late Steve “Chopper” & Marlene Johnson and Donna and Cliff Madson are among the many people who come together to make the amazing event happen.

The event started about twenty-one years ago while Murdo and Chopper, long-time friends, were having a discussion over a few drinks one evening. “I don’t know how we got started talking about it,” Murdo explained. “I said, ‘My favorite holiday is Thanksgiving.

I’ve always wanted to do something.’ And Chopper said, ‘Well, that’s my favorite holiday too.’” He continued on, explaining how they talked about doing something special for the holiday. The following Monday, Chopper called Murdo and said “Let’s do it!”

Let the festivities begin!

It was then that the Yankton Community Feast began, a holiday gathering for anyone to come in to enjoy a delicious, hot meal and friendship together. Murdo, though being part of the brains behind the idea, was reluctant to take credit for the event, instead giving credit to the many others involved in helping, including individuals, businesses, organizations, churches and the Sacred Heart Monastery.

In its early years, the Feast was held at the Link Auditorium at Sacred Heart School. The meal was served in the auditorium and the dining room was used for overflow. Often people would line up outside to wait for their meal, some years facing brutally cold South Dakota winters. When the old school was torn down, Calvary Baptist generously offered their space for the event. The building provides ample space and those in the meal line no longer need to stand outside. This has been their fourth year at Calvary.

With the number of volunteers required for the event to be successful in its first year, Prairie Freedom Center was a tremendous asset providing help. Unexpectedly, the event served over 1,000 people the first year. Over twenty years later, the event is still going and they’ve tripled in attendees, now serving approximately 2,800-3,000 with close to 300 meals delivered to those unable to attend.

Donna Carlson has helped with the meal since the beginning. She and her husband Cal moved here 50 years ago and have felt delightfully embraced by the community. “The holiday feast is my Thanksgiving,” she beams. “It’s my way to give back to the community. A thank you, Yankton.” Though she primarily works in the kitchen, she also acts as a float, filling in any spots where needed.

Donna Madson has spent 17 years helping with the event, spending a lot of time on the phone starting each November. Madson works on organizing volunteers and calling businesses to line up the turkeys and pies.

Chopper’s wife Marlene Johnson continues to carry on her husband’s legacy, assisting with the overall planning of the event and creating the posters and various letters distributed in the community.

Always enough to go around

Incredibly, though serving 3,000 people, the Feast has never run out of food, though Johnson explains that they came very close one year. Just how much food does it take to feed that many people, I asked:

• 95 turkeys

• 550 pounds of potatoes

• 120 gallons of gravy

• 60 gallons of corn

• 24 gallons of cranberries

• 175-200 pies

It takes a team of over 200 volunteers to set up, serve, cut pies, carve turkeys, clean tables and clean up. Twelve to thirteen volunteers are used exclusively for delivering meals to those physically unable to attend. The first volunteers start coming in at noon to carve turkeys and shortly thereafter the take-out containers start getting filled. The meal begins serving at 4:30pm and the take-out containers are sent out for delivery. Serving then continues until 7:00pm.

A community, a family

When asking the committee members what their first impression of the event was, they all had the same response. “Wow!”

“The generosity of the community is just fantastic,” Carlson smiles, and explains how radio stations, the newspaper and the press in promoting along with the donations from society to make the event happen is truly remarkable.

“The community has now really taken on this event,” states Johnson, explaining how so many play a role in making the Feast happen. Even the children get involved in volunteering, including Scouts and church groups. Madson laughs as she tells a story about her 6-year old granddaughter helping serve one year. As she’s handing out dinner rolls with one hand, she’s holding a dinner roll in one hand and eating it. We all laugh.

Carlson adds, “There’s a space for everybody and everything. We never turn down anything. It takes a lot of people to make this happen.”

A warm meal and warm hearts

“When it’s all over they come up and smile and say thank you and some of them give you hugs and you feel so good because they have had a delicious meal,” Madson grinned. Johnson explains how she often hears many talk about making a new friend during the Feast. Their goal is to keep the event going, Johnson adding, “Every year we get more new people that come back.” She laughs, “Who would have ever thought it would go this long?”

Fill your plate, find a friend

Johnson encourages everyone to come to the Community Feast. “It’s open to the public. We want to encourage you to come. We know it’s a busy night, but come to enjoy a delicious, hot meal and some fellowship and bring your family.” If you’ve been to the holiday feast, share your experience with someone. If not, invite someone and come down to make some friends and give thanks that we live in such a wonderful community.

Want to help?

If you’re interested in assisting with or contributing to the Community Feast, call Donna Madson on her cell phone at (605) 760-3170.