Forty-six years ago, the owner of a small grocery store in Moline, Illinois, discovered that some of his customers were about to spend Thanksgiving alone. Many had no families, or their children had all grown, or their spouses had passed away. It saddened Bob Vogelbaugh to think that the holiday, for these folks, would be just another normal day.
That evening he eyed his folding chairs and tables, and noted that he had plenty of room for people to come and enjoy a meal. He called the customers who had no Thanksgiving plans and invited them to gather with him the next day. He provided the turkey; they brought sides.
From that small but heart-felt beginning, Vogelbaugh has embraced more people into the holiday dinners than just his customers. Everyone in the Moline area in northwest Illinois is welcome to attend, and the gatherings have grown to include between 2,000 and 2,500 people. He’s become so well-known for his initiative that people in the city call him “Mr. Thanksgiving.”
“It’s like one large family,” Vogelbaugh said. “From the volunteers to making people feel welcome — people sitting next to strangers and all of the sudden they’re talking — and that’s what it’s all about. To me, it’s like the gathering of the first Thanksgiving.”
About 400 people now volunteer each year to make the dinner a success. Volunteers include everyone from individuals to families and students from various area high schools. The dinner, which costs about $15,000 to put on, is funded by donations from local residents.
What is it that keeps Vogelbaugh going year after year? According to the Quad City Times, when he announced the location of the 2016 dinner, he also read a card he’d received a few years before, thanking him for his work.
“It was our first time since we had no family members to be with this year,” the card said. “It was such a pleasant surprise to be surrounded by so many friendly and helpful people. It felt like the big family gatherings we used to have.”
Vogelbaugh wants everyone to know, though, that this is a time for fellowship, not charity. The point of the dinner is to get to know one’s neighbors. For Mr. Thanksgiving, community is what the holiday is all about.
Does this story inspire you? Perhaps this Thanksgiving you can invite some neighbors who have no holiday plans to be a part of yours. It’s a small step, but one that could mean the world to an otherwise lonely soul.