Emily and Samuel Craig recently moved to Dubuque with their two children.

Emily’s mother opted not to host a Thanksgiving meal this year, and Samuel’s parents live out of state. The Craigs’ new residence is small, and they weren’t sure they’d be able to prepare a traditional Thanksgiving feast.

“We couldn’t afford to get a ham or a turkey at the last minute,” said Emily.

So the couple brought their sons Jack, 2, and John, 1, to the Joliet Event Center in downtown Dubuque on Thursday to partake in the Dubuque Community Thanksgiving Dinner.

“If we didn’t come here today, we wouldn’t be having a Thanksgiving meal,” Emily said.

“We would be alone,” added Samuel.

The annual Thanksgiving meal was launched in 1962 by former restaurant owner and longtime Dubuque resident Donna Ginter. The guest list for that first meal was small — a handful of men with nowhere to go on the holiday — but nearly six decades later, the dinner is now a community staple serving thousands each November.

Donna Ginter died in 2013, but her children continue their mother’s tradition, aided by a host of relatives and community volunteers.

“It’s still a need in Dubuque, so we just continue it because that need is still there,” said Genny Ginter, one of Donna Ginter’s daughters.

The feast was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In its place, several local businesses and nonprofit organizations teamed up to provide 1,000 delivered and carryout meals.

This year, the Ginters were proud to be back serving the community again, with masks required to ensure the safety of volunteers and guests.

“We’re really happy. Dubuque has such a big heart,” said Genny. “People came out of the woodwork to help with this.”

About 300 volunteers donated their time to the event, many serving as drivers for the 1,300 delivery orders. Others staffed a well-organized assembly line filling boxes and plates.

Eighty-five turkeys were prepared, filling 37 roasters. Volunteers also dished up dressing, potatoes, corn, beans and a variety of cold dishes, including macaroni salad, cranberries and strawberry fluff.

Jodi Lukens, of Dubuque, scooped dressing at the head of the line. Lukens has volunteered at the event for about seven years, and she felt its absence keenly last November when the dinner was canceled.

“It’s been part of my holiday now for a long time. Last year, with COVID, they didn’t have it, and it just didn’t seem like a holiday,” she said. “It brings the community together as volunteers, and it’s just a good feeling to be helping.”

At the other end of the line, first-time volunteer Deb Nelson worked with Jan Ginter — Donna Ginter’s niece — to slice and plate apple pies.

Nelson was born in Dubuque and recently moved back after 20 years away. She met Genny Ginter and was inspired to lend a hand with the family’s Thanksgiving effort.

“Genny is constantly doing something for others,” Nelson said. “I just wanted to be a part of it.”

As a member of the Ginter family, Jan has helped at the event “forever,” doing whatever needs to be done.

“It really is nice for the community to feed people,” she said.

Longtime volunteer Kevin Botsford organized the event’s 61 delivery routes, most of which fell within Dubuque city limits. As registrations poured in this fall, he took note of each individual’s name, address and number of meals requested, then assigned each to a route based on geographic location.

Beth Triplett and Curt Kiessling, of Asbury, delivered meals in downtown Dubuque on Thursday morning. The two have volunteered with the Ginter meal for seven years and described it as a positive way to give back to the community.

“You light up somebody’s day when you bring some food back to them,” Kiessling said.

After the delivery orders were completed, the row of volunteers shifted to fill the plates of those who had come in person to receive food. Genny said about 250 people usually come to eat in person, but organizers were unsure what attendance would look like amid the ongoing pandemic.

Many attendees took their meals to go, but some chose to sit and enjoy their feast at the tables set up in the hall.

Brandon Minor, of Dubuque, has attended the event for four years.

“I’m by myself, so this is someplace to go to get some good food,” he said.

Dubuque resident Pat McDonald also lives alone, and he said it can be challenging to cook Thanksgiving dinner for one person.

“This is great,” he said, while tucking into a plate full of turkey, potatoes and corn. “There’s nothing better.”

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