Steamboat Springs Jackson Creagan served rolls Thursday with an élan that made him the star of the buffet line at the Steamboat Springs Community Center.
Jackson, 9, volunteered for about two hours at Routt County United Way’s annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner. He was one of more than 50 volunteers at the afternoon event that drew 330 people in its first three hours alone. The dinner still was going strong at 4 p.m. as families, friends, co-workers and strangers shared a free meal provided by community donations and orchestrated by a United Way planning effort that began in early October.
Jackson may have been the only one of the volunteers to walk away with some cash.
His service was so good — enthusiastically detailing to each and every eater the various kinds of rolls and breads available — that one person felt compelled to give Jackson a $2 tip.
Pulling the dollar bills out of a pocket, Jackson gave a simple explanation for his expertise.
“I looked at the packaging it was in,” Jackson, a Strawberry Park Elementary School third-grader, said about the rolls he dispensed. “At the beginning I didn’t know what to say, but then I figured out how to do it.”
The $2 could come in handy, but Jackson got another benefit from volunteering — after completing his shift, he piled a plate with four cupcakes and snagged a full cup of fruit punch.
“That was his reward,” said Jackson’s mother, Jen Creagan.
Eating hearty was the theme Thursday. Routt County United Way Executive Director Kelly Stanford said she opened the Community Center doors at 12:45 p.m., 15 minutes early, because a small line already had formed outside. Shortly after 2 p.m., the crowd was so thick that some people brought their plates to the couches in the lobby.
Local attorney Lynaia South, working the check-in list at the front door, said this year was the first time she had seen the crowd overflow like that.
Down the hall in the kitchen, Frank Beckwith of Diehl Builders was part of an energetic crew slinging dishes and working hard to keep up with the demand.
Beckwith said he got to the Community Center at 9 a.m. Thursday to begin sorting food and “getting a game plan together” for the massive meal. His duties throughout the day included dishwashing, serving, cleaning and recycling.
“It was pretty chaotic,” he said about the kitchen scene.
Patti Bollenbacher, assistant program manager for the local United Way, said the meal included 31 turkeys, 31 donations of mashed potatoes and more than 20 other menu items. South speculated that the turkey total was much higher, because some donations went unmarked in the rush.
Lynda Van Tassle and her husband, Quentin, were two of numerous servers.
“We’ve done it before and it’s just a wonderful experience,” Lynda, a nurse at Yampa Valley Medical Center, said. “You feel like you’re contributing to the community.”
Many people, with full stomachs on their way out the door, expressed thanks and pleasure for a meal that satisfied at least one culinary expert.
“The food is really good,” said Brad Johnson, a sous chef at Mazzola’s Majestic Italian Diner.
UPS employee Eddie Woodall shared that sentiment. Woodall said experiencing a hurricane in South Florida in 1998 compelled him to move to the Yampa Valley, where he’s lived since.
“The food is very good,” Woodall said. “I went skiing today, so I have a big appetite right now.”
Numerous local businesses provided supplies or equipment for the dinner. Contributors included Steaming Bean Coffee Co., the Steve Green Co., Steamboat Smokehouse, The Steamboat Grand, Steamboat Meat & Seafood Co., Freshies, Baby’s Away and Waste Management. The city of Steamboat Springs donated use of the Community Center. Go Alpine provided free rides to and from the event for people within city limits.
“We got volunteers before we even put the word out,” Bollenbacher said. “Everything is done with community support — all the food, all the staff. … No one gets paid and everything is free.”