Volunteer puts the ‘giving’ in ‘Thanksgiving’

By Anna Spoerre, @ASpoerre_DE

Thanksgiving is often spent taking trips to see family or taking advantage of Black Friday sales. But for one SIU alumnus, the holiday is about giving to his community.

For almost 25 years, JP Dunn has spent the holiday week cooking dinner for a free community meal at the Newman Center on campus.

“It’s good to take a break from work to do something positive,” Dunn said.

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Dunn cooks in a brightly-colored tie-dyed shirt and a colorful fabric hat. He said it’s more fun that way.

Dunn, administrator for SIUonline, began volunteering the same year he began working on campus after completing school. He graduated from Carbondale in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in electronics and again in 1993 with a master’s degree in education.

He said the Thanksgiving prior was the last time he saw his grandmother.

“I decided I was going to do something in her memory, something special, something to help other people,” Dunn said. “People that don’t have anyone to spend Thanksgiving with, people who can’t afford to have a Thanksgiving meal.”

He takes the week of Thanksgiving off of work to spend four days preparing. 

On Monday, he and other volunteers gather and organize dozens of loaves of bread and stacks of canned pumpkin puree among other items donated by the community.

Tuesday he is busy with preparation work and baking. Dunn said they cook pumpkin and pecan pies and pumpkin bread, which fills the kitchen with warm holiday spice aromas.

Wednesday is devoted to making dressing. Eighteen large pans worth, to be exact.

The turkeys are not made by Dunn, but by members of the Knights of Columbus in Breese. Last year, Dunn said they cooked and served 96 turkeys. This year, they are hope to bring more than 100 of the cooked birds.

Dunn said there should be plenty of food to feed the predicted 600 to 800 people that will come to the Newman Center for a meal.

“It’s hard work, but it’s enjoyable hard work,” Dunn said. “You see the outcome almost immediately.”

Dunn said he is thankful for the 40 to 50 people who also come to the Newman Center to cook, serve and clean up from dinner. 

Dunn estimates at least 50 homeless or at-risk of being homeless Carbondale citizens come for a meal every year.

“We don’t turn people away,” Dunn said.

The Thanksgiving meal is served from noon to 2 p.m. Thursday, but they also deliver meals to those unable to leave their homes.

After the Newman Center dinner, Dunn will spend the evening with his family.

“I don’t even know if I’m going to feel like eating turkey,” Dunn said with a laugh.

Though he loves Thanksgiving, his favorite holiday is Christmas, which he said his family decorates for in early November. Dunn said they have five trees in the home and a yard filled with blow-up holiday decorations.

But, Dunn is focused on Thanksgiving for now, because to him the holiday is about giving back.

“Part of being thankful is sharing that with others,” Dunn said before heading back to a cutting board, his festive hat bouncing with each step.

Anna Spoerre can be reached at [email protected] or @ASpoerre_DE

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