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Happier holidays: Elks Lodge works with churches, volunteers to provide turkey dinners

ELMHURST – For about two decades, the Elmhurst Elks Lodge No. 1531 has been assembling Thanksgiving dinners for families who otherwise might not have one.

“I try to be as generous with all of them as I can,” said Michael Baren, the lodge’s Thanksgiving Dinner Chairman. “I’d rather give five churches 30 or 35 meals each, than one church 161 meals.”

They aren’t turkey TV dinners either. Each Thanksgiving Dinner box includes a frozen turkey, a fresh pumpkin pie, stuffing, jellied cranberries, mixed vegetables, white potatoes, sweet potatoes and dinner rolls.

“They didn’t skimp one penny on what they did, and we really appreciate it,” said Carol Montgomery Fate, Outreach Coordinator at First Church of Lombard where 35 of the Elks dinners went.

He estimates that if each dinner goes to a family of four, the Elks help feed more than 600 people in the local community on Thanksgiving. He also knows that the 161 meals, despite being seven more than the Elks were able to assemble last year, aren’t enough.

“The hard part is making sure I don’t overcommit,” said Baren. “We know these churches have greater need than we can fill.”

Because of that, Baren works hard to estimate how much each meal will cost, since prices fluctuate from year to year and how much money the Elks will be able to raise varies. That way, he can commit a certain number of meals to each church or community center, and they know how many dinners they need to seek through other means.

Elmhurst Elks member Tony Dardano said the Thanksgiving Dinner event is one of the most rewarding of the year for the lodge.

“You don’t understand the full impact until the thank you letters start coming in from the families. When you read that, it’s pretty heart-wrenching,” said Dardano, who also is the Illinois Elks Association state president.

The Elks receive thank you letters but rarely meet the people they’re serving since the meals are distributed first to churches.

“I don’t really need to know who it goes to,” Baren said, explaining the families have a relationship with the churches or community centers where the meals are distributed.

The Saturday before Thanksgiving, the Elks pick up the refrigerated items early in the morning. Then about 75 volunteers from churches, the Villa Park, Lombard and Elmhurst police departments, students and Elks members gather in the lodge to execute an efficient packing process that’s been refined over the years.

“We have great need within this community,” said Pam Stefik, the Immaculate Conception director of Christian ministry.

Immaculate Conception Parish received food for 30 dinner from the Elks, but they used that food to supplement donations they collect from their parish, Visitation Parish and Journey Church to create 120 baskets. Those baskets were then distributed to people on lists at the Immaculate Conception Food Pantry, Greencastle senior low-income housing and Catholic Charities.

“We always put more food in the basket,” said Stefik. “It’s not just a Thanksgiving meal. It’s food that will last them for a few days after.”

The First Church of Lombard also used the 35 meals from the Elks to supplement the holiday meals they distribute from The Outreach House.

“Basically the Elks have allowed us to double what we give out,” said Montgomery Fate.

Baren hopes that even though the Elks can’t supply everyone with a Thanksgiving dinner who needs one, that by making the effort, others might feel inspired to help.

“I think what it does is it raises awareness of what’s going on,” Baren said.

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