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Turkey with a side of companionship

Annual Thanksgiving meal available to those in need of more than food

The annual Thanksgiving meal at Al's Family Restaurant provides visitors a free meal and some social interaction.
The annual Thanksgiving meal at Al's Family Restaurant provides visitors a free meal and some social interaction.

Locals organizing an annual free Thanksgiving dinner are not just hoping to fill bellies — they're also hoping to provide some emotional nourishment.

The dinner, which will feature Thanksgiving staples like roasted turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, and pie, will have two seatings at Al's Family Restuarant on Thanksgiving Day — one at noon and another at 1:30 p.m. The restaurant is located at 306 Liberty Street in downtown Morris.

Anyone is welcome to come — attendees are encouraged to call (815) 942-0921 in advance, however reservations are not required.

According to founder Dr. Phil Ortiz, this year is the 11th year of the dinner.

Ortiz said the the tradition got its start after he started thinking about locals who would spend the holiday alone. 

"The idea was to have a place for people who don't have a place to go for dinner," he said. "This is kind of a social time — this is a place for people to go."

Ortiz has been joined by fellow locals Gary Rockis, Chuck Greenway and Jim Baum in running the meals.

Baum said he wasn't sure what to expect his first year he joined in for the event — he was expecting the event to be geared more toward the needy than for those in need of companionship. What he found is that the event is geared toward anyone who doesn't want to spend the holiday alone.

"What's more important than the food is the fellowship," he said. "People just don't want the loneliness — they don't want to eat alone."

He said that the idea the meals are only for the needy is a myth he'd like to dispel.

"I think people often think that this is simply homeless people looking for a meal — this is simply not true," Baum said. "There are people who can probably use the mean and it's helpful to them, but a lot of people don't want to sit in front of their TV sets (for Thanksgiving) ... people are looking for something a little more than food."

Baum said the food is good, and company is plentiful, either with other diners or with volunteer waiters like himself.

The two each identified their favorite part of volunteering as the people they encounter.

"It's just being with people that's enjoyable, and people seem to enjoy being there and they appreciate it," Ortiz said. "It's just kind of a fun thing to do."

Ortiz added that another part of what makes the day special is seeing members of the community gather for the day and the community spirit present. He noted that local businesses and individuals donate pies and their time to take part.

The restaurant is currently accepting donations of pies for the dinner, which may be brought to the restaurant on Wednesday, Nov. 21.

Baum said the dinners are a nice way to observe the holiday, which is tied to abundance, sharing, and giving thanks.

"It's just a wonderful opportunity on a day that we're all supposed to be grateful," Baum said. "I personally think that gratitude is the thing that not just makes us feel good, but it also insulates us when things go bad. Gratitude is a great immunizer of our lives."

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