November of 1992 was the first year that the family of Don and Jean Loken came together to serve the community Thanksgiving dinner, held at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Iola.
It’s been 22 year since then, and the family is stepping down; hoping someone new will step up to the plate to continue the tradition.
“Jean and Kim were the first to organize it all,” said Don Loken, of his wife and daughter. “With Jean being a school cook and having adult children, she knew we could make it work.”
There seems to be some question amongst the family about how exactly it all came about.
“I think it all started with our own Thanksgiving dinner,” said Don. “I had said we had so much left over we could feed a lot more people.”
Don’s daughters Kim and Janel (Peterson) disagree.
“Kim and I were making pies for a similar event in Stevens Point,” said Janel. “Someone asked why we don’t do a dinner here.”
Regardless, one thing is for sure, it has become a huge part of their family tradition.
“It is important to us all,” said Don. “We had a Thanksgiving dinner, we had family, and we wanted to share that with others.”
The family is quick to point out that it would not be possible without the help of the community.
“We have never had to worry,” said Jill Lodewegen. “Our community is very generous. Cash donations are used to purchase all the needs for the dinner.”
Pies are donated.
Even the school kids get involved baking quick breads of all flavors.
“Evan Nelsen even grew squash in his garden each year for the dinner,” Jill said.
Feeding on average 250 meals per year, the planning that goes into the dinner is no easy task.
“Two full days of preparation go into it,” said Kathy.
“That does not include things like ordering things, making posters, sending out mailings,” added Jill.
With 22 immediate family members putting time into the event, volunteers played a significant part as well.
“We have had some people that were with us from the beginning,” said Don. “Volunteers now call us to ask where they can help.”
Each person assigned a task.
“It was my husband Terry’s job to mash the potatoes,” said Jill. “Each Thanksgiving he would go hunting in the morning. Every year, my mom would worry if he would make it back in time.”
Jill laughs as she recalled telling her mom she was sure someone else could mash the potatoes if he did not show up.
Sadly, Jean Loken passed away on July 4, 2013.
“It got harder and harder for Jean to help out,” said Don. “In fact, she and I often talked about stepping down. She knew that our kids would carry it on for as long as they could.”
“Mom would come back by me, while I was package meals to be delivered,” said Kathy. “She would say they’ve got this, I am going to sit down.”
Jill has stepped up to fill her mother’s position in organizing the event.
“It’s a lot of work,” said Jill. “When all is said and done, we are definitely exhausted.”
With mixed emotions, the family has decided it is time to pass the tradition on.
“It’s all our children have even known,” said Janel. “My son Riley was not even a year old that first year.”
“It’s bitter sweet time,” said Kathy. “But it is time for someone else to get the reward of giving.”
Without a doubt they will all carry special memories with them.
“I remember a year when the turkeys did not completely defrost,” said Jill. “We learned quickly that you can still cook it completely from there.”
“Remember Connor standing on the kitchen counter as a toddler, to help mash the potatoes?” asked Kathy. “And Austin sitting in his car seat next to all the turkeys?”
The family shares a laugh.
Their fondest memories go back to the people they have served over the years.
“They were like family,” said Kim. “I loved seeing their smiles. It was a great time for friendships, family and fellowship.”
The Lokens’ hope is it that another family will carry the tradition on.
“Next year will not be easy,” said Kim. “I think we will all think about it a lot.”
“Mom would not want us to cry over this,” said Jill. “She would understand that it was time to move on.”