NEW LONDON — It's about 10 minutes before the big meal is served and volunteers are in the kitchen at the Evangelical Covenant Church in New London, whipping up another batch of mashed potatoes and stirring mixed vegetables.
One group of volunteers stands at a long, well-laden table at the front of the fellowship hall, ready to serve up plates of hot food to the guests while another group is in the back assigned to fill up take-out plates.
There's a momentary hush while a prayer for the food — and for a win for the Vikings — is shared and then the eating, talking and laughing begins.
This was the 17th annual community Thanksgiving meal in the New London and Spicer communities, and by the time the two-hour event was done, a total of 130 people sat down to eat at the community table.
Another 81 people were given take-out meals.
While the food was the star of the show, people also come because they're "hungry" for fellowship, community and friendship, said Marilyn Downs, one of the lead organizers of the event.
There was a trucker traveling through who stopped for the free meal and someone who had just finished chemotherapy sitting around the tables.
There were several people who were ill or who had just returned home from the hospital who had meals delivered to them.
Josh and Jennifer Nelson and their three young children, Kaiya, William and James, were there with extended family members who were in town for an unexpected funeral of a family member.
The community meal allowed them time to be together without having to worry about the details of preparing a meal while struggling with their grief.
Sponsored by the Evangelical Covenant Church and Peace Lutheran Church of New London and Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Church in Spicer, the meal is just as important to the volunteers as it is to those being served, said Downs.
"It's not all about the food. It's about the serving and coming together," she said.
Pam Haverly was there volunteering with her daughter-in-law, Karlee.
"It's all about making people feel at home and feeling like they're part of an extended family," Haverly said. "It's a blessing to serve and to be amongst our community."
Rick and Nancy Wehseler and their children, Ben, Caroline and Ellie, have volunteered at the Thanksgiving community meal for several years.
"It's something that our family can do and we get a chance to see people we don't necessarily always get to see and spend time with our family at the same time," said Rick Wehseler.
"We don't have family in the area, so this is our family in the area," he said.
In between stirring pots of hot vegetables in the kitchen, MaryAnn Carter, of Sunburg, said she volunteers wherever she is needed. "The point of today is, what are you thankful for? It's not all about the turkeys."
With numerous volunteers — including older mentors who started the community meal in 2000 and a new generation stepping in to take on responsibilities — Downs said the key to making the event run smoothly is lots of lists, good communication and a willingness to serve.
At the end of the day, everyone is tired but happy.
"I can't think of a better thing to do on Thanksgiving Day," she said.