The path off the streets ‘starts with a meal': Salt Lake City Mission dishes up more than Thanksgiving dinners for the hungry and homeless

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Monica Wilson sings during dinner at the 25th Annual Thanksgiving Dinner for the hungry and homeless at the Christian Life Center on Redwood Road in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018.

The Salt Lake City Mission’s Great Thanksgiving Dinner for the Hungry and Homeless is about more than just a meal.

The organization was prepared to serve up to 3,500 attendees a traditional Thanksgiving meal that included turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, candied yams and pumpkin pie. But volunteers also provided hygiene kits, new shoes and coats and information about a variety of programs and services in an effort to help people experiencing homelessness beyond Thanksgiving Day.

“Very often the pathway for a person to come off the street starts with a meal,” said Joe Vazquez, the organization’s co-executive director.

Rachel Vaughan used to come to the dinner, now in its 25th year, for a hot plate of food during her four years of homelessness. This year, she helped coordinate the more than 100 volunteers who came to wait and clean tables, prepare food and pass out new clothes.

“As someone who’s been homeless, I think it’s amazing that we do this,” she said. “It makes you feel human.”

Travis Gimmer, 53, said he came to the event at the Christian Life Center, 1055 N. Redwood Road, from The Road Home shelter in downtown Salt Lake City seeking a place to eat a hot meal and get off the streets for a while. He first came to Utah from Green River, Wyo., nearly two decades ago and has been on and off the streets for more than half those years.

“It kind of hurts this time of year,” he said, looking down at his pumpkin pie as tears welled in his eyes. “I lost both my parents. It’s basically just me.”

Though the event offers an important service to low-income families and those experiencing homelessness, Vazquez said it also provides volunteers with something they need: perspective.

“It’s awesome for families,” he said. “If they start their Thanksgiving Day by coming and serving and then they go home and eat their dinner, it’s easy to sit around the table and talk about being thankful, you know?”

Thursday’s event wasn’t the only opportunity for people to celebrate the Thanksgiving season with a warm meal.

The Larry H. Miller Group hosted a holiday feast at the Vivint Smart Home Arena on Monday. And PGA Tour golfer Tony Finau, who spent his youth in Salt Lake City’s Rose Park, hosted a turkey dinner Tuesday night for more than 1,000 people at the Utah State Fairpark in his home neighborhood.

“I was able to meet a couple families that actually never had Thanksgiving dinner before, so that was pretty cool,” Finau said. “I think some people left with higher spirits, which was really the whole goal of this. Hopefully, people are inspired to do something to pay it forward.”

Finau was touched by the responses from families who appreciated the meal.

“You just see the sheer joy that some people have; tears in their eyes,” he said, “It’s especially very special for me, being from Rose Park. I grew up in this neck of the woods, riding my bike around this State Fairpark and walking to school. To be in position to give back, especially in an area that I know, it makes it that much more special for me.”

The event was organized by the Tony Finau Foundation in partnership with Traeger Grills with food donations from the Diestel Family Ranch and Whole Foods.

Sports writer Kurt Kragthorpe contributed to this story.