By Cristina Blackwell
SAN ANTONIO -- For three decades, the nation's largest Thanksgiving event of its kind has brought together over 20,000 seniors, families and homeless in San Antonio to provide a free, home-cooked traditional Thanksgiving meal.
The Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner invites those in need of a warm holiday meal to celebrate giving thanks with volunteers while enjoying live music and entertainment.
The tradition dates back to1979 when San Antonio restaurateur and businessman, Raul Jimenez recognized the need to feed senior citizens who were alone and could not afford to make a holiday meal for themselves. At the time, Jimenez organized a feast that served 5,000 elderly, all at his very own expense. "He wanted to give thanks and give back to the community for all of the blessings he received," said Patricia Jimenez, daughter of Raul Jimenez.
Beginning in Fort Worth, the 30th Annual Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner tradition continues this Thanksgiving Day at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in downtown San Antonio. Jimenez's vision to bring the community together for this philanthropic event has become a reality. The room is decorated in bright colors filled with streamers and balloons, all done by a collaboration of dozens of volunteers. The ambiance is surrounded by live music and tablecloths are covered with placemats made by local schoolchildren.
Diners will never have transportation problems -- the city bus system makes free passes available on request so that no one misses dinner. Both corporate and private donors support the program as well. Over 4,000 volunteers make it happen, including professional chefs who donate their time to oversee the kitchens.
After Raul Jimenez's death on October 26, 1998, his daughter, Patricia Jimenez, took over as event chair and carries on the family tradition, Mr. Jimenez's proudest accomplishment.
"My dad was very dedicated to helping others," said Patricia. "His motto was, 'You come into this world with nothing, and you leave with nothing. What counts is what you do in between.' As a family, we are grateful that San Antonio has kept my father's dream alive by supporting the dinner," she said.
The long-established holiday event has become a San Antonio tradition where the entire local community exhibits the best in itself and gives unselfishly. Mayor Julian Castro describes the Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner as the spirit of San Antonio.
"It's not a Jimenez family tradition," said Patricia, "it's a San Antonio tradition."
Volunteer Committee Members assist project management with the coordination of transportation, food preparation and service, beverages, decorations, event-day volunteers, entertainment, even security and clean-up. Community and corporate volunteers assist with the food preparation. Area school districts contribute table decorations and hundreds of students help adorn the Convention Center. On Thanks- giving Day, volunteers gather to greet dinner guests, prepare and serve meals, and clean up at the end of the day.
The job at home is nothing compared to what is stirring up at the Convention Center. Volunteers prepare over 450 turkeys, 6,700 lbs. of yams, 6,700 lbs. of canned green beans, 7,800 lbs. of stuffing, 5,700 lbs. of cranberry sauce and over 30,000 dinner rolls.
As for desert -a whopping 3,000 pumpkin pies will be served.
Preparations begin the Sunday before Thanksgiving when the turkeys are delivered to the Convention Center kitchen. On Monday, the volunteers start deboning and roasting turkeys, averaging 150 birds per day. The tables are set on Wednesday, and on Thanksgiving Day, food is served from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The afternoon offers free musical entertainment volunteered by many of San Antonio's most popular bands playing Rock n' Roll, Country Western and Tejano music. Guests at the event, have the opportunity to make a free call home to their loved ones, even if it is an international call.
Having worked for nearly a decade with the Jimenez family, public relations manager of the Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner, Michele Krier, has come to see not only the dedication the family has to making the dinner a success, but how much time and effort Patricia puts into the event.
"It's basically a full-time job to prepare everything," she said.
Each year new volunteers help deliver thousands of meals to the community. "Anyone who comes in for the first time realizes how inspiring the Raul Jimenez Dinner is," said Ms. Krier. "When you see the size of this whole project, you'll be moved."
Gabriel Cano, volunteer and long-time family friend, feels honored to be part of such a tradition. "It's a rewarding feeling to see all the fellow volunteers give so much of their time so unselfishly," he said.
Volunteer positions are full this year but donations are accepted online or by mailing a check to: Raul Jimenez Dinner c/o Sterling Bank P.O. Box 200010, San Antonio, Texas 78219.
Additional information can be found at www.rauljimenezdinner.com.
Generous sponsors for the Jimenez Dinner are the RK Group, Valero Energy Corporation, AARP, BMP Radio, Time Warner Cable of San Antonio, Sterling Bank, Starbuck's, the San Antonio Express-News, CPS and the City of San Antonio.