As Tejano music blared from a stage set up in the parking lot behind Last Chance Ministries on San Antonio’s West Side, Margarita Ramos danced and twirled with her hands in the air. Nearby, volunteers prepared to dole out helpings of mashed potatoes, turkey, and stuffing to the hundreds present.

Ramos, a member of Last Chance Ministries’ congregation, said she was grateful to be at her church’s annual Thanksgiving community dinner, which was expected to serve more than 3,000 people Saturday afternoon.

“We’re blessed to be here and give back to the community that we love,” Ramos said. “God provided for us, and now we provide for everyone else.”

Pastor Jimmy Robles leads the Last Chance Ministries congregation and helps to organize the annual community dinner, now in its 13th year. A native San Antonian, Robles grew up on the West Side, in the same zip code where the Thanksgiving dinner was being held Saturday.

“We’re in the 78207 zip code, which is considered one of the poorest,” Robles said. “A lot of people don’t have Thanksgiving or they don’t have family, so we are their family.”

Robles’ Thanksgiving dinner began more than a decade ago in a vacant parking lot farther north, close to Woodlawn Lake. He started by serving food to the homeless.

The dinner’s attendance grew every year, serving Thanksgiving meals for free to anyone who wanted to join. Eight years ago, Robles moved the dinner to a new location, into the parking lot behind his church, which is a former food stamps office – one that he used to visit to get his own food stamps.

“I went to the school right across the street, at Storm Elementary,” Robles said. “This neighborhood is known for a bunch of storms, and I believe God brought me here to calm down the storm just a little bit and bring light to this community.”

Last Chance Ministries Pastor Jimmy Robles

This year, Mexican restaurant Las Palapas donated 500 turkeys for the dinner. Some of the 150 volunteers arrived early Saturday morning to begin preparing the meal. They cooked gravy on a stovetop in a huge vat, shredded hundreds of pounds of turkey meat, and stacked tins of stuffing and mashed potatoes on top of one another.

Yvette Gutierrez, a volunteer who said she prefers mashed potatoes over stuffing, has been giving her time to make the dinner happen since 2011.

“I do this because it gives all honor and glory to our Lord,” Gutierrez said. “It is a blessing to be serving our community.”

Turkey is shredded and deboned by (from left) Cynthia Quintero, Rosalinda Peña, and Tina Cano.

The volunteers’ efforts were well appreciated by event attendees, including Concepcion Torres, who was invited to attend by her friend, Ramos.

When a group of Christian music singers performed on stage, Torres joined Ramos in dancing. Moved by the music, Torres sank to her knees and cried.

Torres’ son is undergoing medical treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center. At a stressful time for her family, Torres wanted to take time to give thanks during the holidays.

“God was here today because of the work this church is doing,” Torres said. “He will work on my son, and I’m so thankful for that.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.