After 37 years of providing free meals to anyone who walks through the doors, the Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner has become a well-oiled machine. A small army of more than 4,000 volunteers will take part in what has become the largest Thanksgiving dinner in the U.S., serving more than 25,000 people this Thursday, Nov. 24 at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

Preparations have already begun for the massive undertaking and I stood in the bustling kitchen this morning in awe of its coordination. But I couldn’t stand there for long – I quickly found myself in the flight path of volunteer RK Group chefs and food prep workers completing their assigned tasks.

It looks a bit chaotic at first: people were pushing large metal racks on their way to be filled or emptied, pulling apart turkey meat, or placing small cups onto trays. But once you find your place – or are mercifully assigned one from a more seasoned volunteer like I was – you can see the rhyme and reason.

I pulled cranberry duty this morning alongside teenagers, adults, and a group of coworkers from USAA. Dozens of companies encourage their employees to volunteer for the Jimenez Dinner, often allowing them to clock-in during their time in the kitchen.

The assembly line for the end product – thousands of small cups of jellied cranberry sauce on hundreds of trays on dozens of metal racks – took up most of the kitchen. Several tables were dedicated to laying out the cups on trays, but I found my place in the can-opening line. After maiming a few cans in to submission and watching my colleagues’ techniques, I was able to quickly strip the tops off. While the can openers provided were not the sharpest, they got the job done. A small “can opener graveyard” formed in the middle of the table as we realized they could only handle opening 30-50 cans before the blades were dulled beyond function.

While struggling with some particularly difficult cans, Jocelyn Valencia and I started to appreciate the magnitude of 4,688 pounds of jellied cranberry sauce and how physically demanding this repetitive, almost robotic work is.

Rivard Report Managing Editor Iris Dimmick speaks with fellow volunteer Jocelyn Valencia on the cranberry line.
Rivard Report Managing Editor Iris Dimmick speaks with fellow volunteer Jocelyn Valencia on the cranberry line. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“I’m going to be sore tomorrow,” she said as I realized that my wrists had started to cramp.

Her son, Robert Anthony, promoted himself from opening and dumping out the red, gelatinous goo to smashing it with a comically large whisk. This is Jocelyn and Robert Anthony’s first year volunteering at the Jimenez Dinner and they signed up to log hours as part of Robert’s confirmation at St. Brigid Catholic Church.

“To me, coming here is an opportunity to serve God through the people you’re going to feed,” said Valencia, who plans on coming back with her family next year and beyond.

“Who is Raul Jimenez?” she asked me, just as Patricia Jimenez, Raul’s daughter, was passing by our table.

Every year, more people learn about the charismatic restaurateur who in 1979 started what has become a tradition for thousands of San Antonians. The Thanksgiving dinner’s original goal was to feed 100. This year, Patricia and her team will easily feed more than 25,000. While most of those served are among the poorest and hungriest in the city, many middle-class volunteers alternate between serving and dining with the diverse crowd.

Patricia continues her father’s generous tradition, centered around his often-quoted motto: “We come into this world with nothing, we leave with nothing. What counts is what we do in between. I believe in caring and sharing.”

We opened hundreds of cans in just under two hours. The once-intimidating rack of unopened cans behind us was carted away to be refilled. “Many hands make light work,” as the saying goes, and there’s plenty more work to be done through Thursday.

According to organizers, volunteers will prepare and serve:

  • 9,400 pounds of turkey
  • 6,250 pounds of stuffing
  • 6,250 pounds of green beans
  • 650 pounds of gravy
  • 4,688 pounds of yams
  • 4,688 pounds of cranberry sauce
  • 32,000 dinner rolls
  • 3,000 pumpkin pies

Total donations this year surpassed $142,000 as of Monday, according to organizers, but the Jimenez Dinner is still accepting donations online here and via checks sent to 8700 Crownhill Blvd., Suite 802,  San Antonio, TX 78209. Much of the dinner is made possible by in kind donations of food, logistical support, and materials.

Dinner and entertainment in street-level Exhibit Halls 3 and 4 are free of charge from 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., starting with an all-faith worship service and including live music throughout the day.

VIA is offering free rides for seniors, 55 or over, to and from the Convention Center bus stop at 900 E. Market St. Call VIA at 210-362-2020 for more information.

Volunteer slots are full for this year’s Thanksgiving Dinner, but there are plenty of other volunteer opportunities in San Antonio during the holiday season and throughout the year.

The same space at the Convention Center will host another holiday dinner on Dec. 17 from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. for the H-E-B Feast of Sharing where an estimated 15,000 people will receive a free meal.

The San Antonio Food Bank is hosting its annual Great Turkey Challenge 5K on Thursday at 8:30 a.m. Proceeds go toward providing a turkey dinner to families in need. Registration closes at midnight on Monday. The 5K is part of the Food Bank’s Food 4 SA campaign to collect 1 million pounds of food.

The City, United Way, and Volunteer Match are a few examples of organizations that host volunteer opportunities on their websites year-round.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org