Since 2007, the annual Thanksgiving and Christmas day meals served at the Hotchkiss Senior Center have provided a holiday meal to more than 1,000 citizens. How many meals were served during the 17 years before records were kept is anyone's guess.
Since 2006, Larry Jakubiak has been the driving force behind the free annual holiday meals. Last Thursday's meal drew 89 diners, not including those who opted for the take-out service. Jakubiak, a former Hotchkiss mayor and current trustee, has spent much of his life in the restaurant business, so it was a natural move to assume the tradition.
Meals were first put on by two local families, the Borthwicks and the Scubbs, said Jakubiak. Family members eventually moved away, and a generous lady, Mary Ruth Dunham, took over. She eventually became unable to do the job. In 2006, Jakubiak received a call early Thanksgiving morning from the Elks Lodge, where the meal was scheduled to be held. The caller told him that no one was there to prepare the meal. Jakubiak, who was at the time owner of the North Fork Valley Restaurant and Bar, knew he had to do something.
"I'll never forget that day," said Jakubiak. He got on the phone to his bar patrons, telling them, "I know you're hung over, but can you help?" He arrived at the Elks to find four frozen turkeys, and nothing else. With no money in his pockets, he ran to City Market to see if they would help, and came back with all kinds of food. While the turkeys thawed under running water, he made dressing. His patrons brought enough food to fill the menu. "Some woman brought a big can of green beans," he recalled.
By the scheduled 11 o'clock start, the place was filled up, said Jakubiak. Everyone understood, and dinner was on the table by noon. "It was amazing," said Jakubiak. The meal was a hit.
The next year the meal was moved to the senior center at City Hall, where it's still held today.
The meal is truly a community effort, said Jakubiak. Zack's Bar-B-Q smokes the turkeys. Volunteers bring salads and desserts, and this year someone brought a big box of winter squash for people to take home.
The Town of Hotchkiss also donates annually to both meals, and Crawford has also donated funds. About $1,000 in donations, enough to pay for both meals, have already come in this year.
As with the Thanksgiving meal, the Christmas dinner includes all of the trimmings, plus smoked ham.
It couldn't all happen without the volunteers, said Jakubiak. While many of the faces change from year to year, a small core keeps coming back every year. Casey Stengel has volunteered all 24 years and mans the dessert table. "He told me he'll be here every year until he can't," said Jakubiak. Stengel's son, Chris, also volunteers every year, and another lady volunteered annually until moving away two years ago.
While everyone is welcome, the meal is intended to serve those who don't have family in the area or who otherwise would not get a holiday meal, said Jakubiak, whose extended family lives in California. While most of the diners are senior citizens, more and more young families are coming in with their children, and grandparents with out-of-town visitors bring families to the dinners.
This year Jakubiak said two elderly ladies really stood out. Neither had family in the area or the resources to cook a holiday meal. One politely asked if she was putting too much food on her plate, and the other asked if it would be too much to ask if she could take some home. He made sure she had plenty to take home.
Said Jakubiak, it's those ladies, and others like them, "that make it all worthwhile."