PENDLETON — Thanksgiving dinners don’t prepare themselves.

Volunteers gathered early at the Salvation Army in Pendleton to help put together the annual meal. A cadre of potato peelers circled up in the hallway, peeling over 70 pounds before they were done.

In the kitchen, head cook Sheena Willingham oversaw preparation of fourteen 12-pound turkey roasts, 5 gallons of gravy, 200 dinner rolls, cranberry sauce and green beans. Twenty-five pies sat on a table ready for slicing.

Willingham’s first day as Salvation Army cook was only Monday, four days before the biggest meal of the year. The cook didn’t seemed fazed. The former food truck owner is an experienced cook who specializes in barbecue and who has won the the annual Pendleton Cattle Barons’ Buckaroo BBQ Challenge.

“Cooking is my passion,” Willingham said.

As for Thursday’s Thanksgiving dinner, “it was a guessing game,” she said. “I cooked for 200 people.”

As the dinner got rolling, guests flowed in over two hours. About halfway in, 31 diners sat at eight round tables eating their meals. Among the volunteers serving them were five members of the Breshears family: Karma, 13, Layton, 11, Savannah, 7, Drake, 8, and their mother Danielle.

Danielle said 8-year-old Drake was the reason she suggested volunteering at the dinner to her four children.

“Drake has a huge heart for the homeless,” she said. “He’s been begging to work at the warming station. He also wants to make hot chocolate and give it out to them.”

As she spoke, Drake walked by with a plate of turkey and all the trimmings. She smiled.

“This time of year is about giving,” she said. “Kids get in the mode of receiving so much. It’s nice for them to have a chance to give.”

Drake wasn’t quite as big picture as his mom.

“I take people’s plates and serve food to them,” he said. “They seem happy. I like it.”

Drake’s older sister Karma said she was enjoying the opportunity now that she was here. Her mother, she said, had taken them by surprise.

“But we’re up for it,” Karma said. “I was a little scared at first that I’d drop a plate, but I’m over that.”

Danielle served up plates, stealing glances at her progeny as they experienced the joy of giving to others. It doesn’t get much better as far as teaching life lessons.

“This is a perfect moment,” she said.

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Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0810.

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