La Crosse Community Thanksgiving Dinner

By Andrea Culletto  

These days it’s easy to think of our communities as divided, but nothing could be further from the truth. And perhaps nothing demonstrates this more than the La Crosse Community Thanksgiving Dinner (LCTD). This annual event has been going on for 35 years and has only grown stronger with time. Unlike many community events, the LCTD is hosted not by a business or the city, but by the people of La Crosse. “It’s put on by the community for the community,” explained Daria Lapp, vice president of the LCTD board of directors.

This is a community celebration that is inclusive and open to all. Held at the La Crosse Center, it is a place to gather, socialize and celebrate the holiday of gratitude and giving. “The dinner is for everyone,” said volunteer and board member Ruth McQuiston-Keil. “Not just the needy but, rather, all of the community regardless of race, income or social standing.” 

The Beginning of a Holiday Tradition

The La Crosse Community Thanksgiving Dinner first started in 1982 when a small group of area residents came together to create a Thanksgiving Day “Festival of Sharing.” They envisioned a free community gathering centered around food, fellowship and worship. In cooperation with the Salvation Army and Cooperative Campus Ministries, the first event was facilitated by approximately 100 volunteers and served over 300 attendees in the English Lutheran Church’s Stoffel Hall. 

The idea took off from there. It is now an interfaith endeavor to unite the community, routinely serving over 3,000 individuals. The organizers even offer some transportation and home deliveries for homebound residents.

Serving and Sharing for 35 Years

Today, the mission of the LCTD is much the same as it was in the beginning—to provide a community celebration and holiday meal to people who don’t want to be alone, don’t have the means to provide a special meal for themselves, or simply want to share in a community meal.

“Come down and get to know your neighbors over a wonderful meal, listen to some great entertainment, perhaps watch the game on the big-screen TV and share stories with one another,” said McQuiston-Keil. “We have an amazing community and it involves everyone.”

McQuiston-Keil became involved with the LCTD over 20 years ago when she worked her first two-hour shift as a volunteer. “I was so amazed with the organization and loved everything it stood for,” she recalled. “So much so, that I wanted to get involved even more.” She went on to serve as a planning member, a board member and even organization chair. “It has been such a rewarding experience and such a fulfilling personal journey. I’ve met so many wonderful folks and made many friends along the way. We’ve become a family and I think that says it all.”

Lapp began volunteering with the LCTD when her children were just 2 and 4 years old by delivering meals to homebound residents. “Volunteering has always been important to me,” Lapp explained. “I figured if one or both of my children got cranky or fell asleep, my husband or I could take turns staying in the car with them while the other delivered the meal to the door. My other hope was that their smiles would bring extra joy to those who were spending Thanksgiving at home alone.” 

In 2012, Lapp’s then kindergarten-aged daughter began selling Girl Scout cookies and collected donated boxes to be distributed with the LCTD meals. “That Thanksgiving Day some people thought she was trying to sell them the cookies, but when it became clear that they were a donation from someone else in the community, they were delighted,” recalled Lapp. The cookie flavor was called “Thanks-a-Lots.” 

In time, volunteering at the LCTD became a highly anticipated family tradition, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing. In 2015, the event nearly failed to happen at all. “When word spread that the LCTD was canceled, my heart sank,” recalled Lapp. “The thought of these community members and my own family’s tradition led me to sending an email asking how I could help more than just on Thanksgiving Day so that the dinner could continue. The outpouring of community support was so strong that about 100 individuals showed up at Logan Middle School’s auditorium willing to help do whatever was needed to not cancel the dinner.” Lapp joined the planning committee, was nominated to the board of directors, and later elected as vice president. 

Today the LCTD is as strong as ever, and Lapp and her family continue to serve. They have gathered many memories over the years. Lapp still remembers the hearing-impaired woman who taught her family how to sign Happy Thanksgiving. Then there was the time they made an emergency stop to buy utensils because the site they were delivering to didn’t have enough. And there was the year when they couldn’t find the house they were delivering to, only to discover that it wasn’t a house at all. “The meals were being delivered to the owner of a Hmong market and his family,” Lapp remembered. “There were customers, so we stood in line at the cash register to make our delivery.”

How to Help

The success of the LCTD comes from the kind and caring individuals who participate. And, as those who volunteer can attest, you gain much more than you give. If you haven’t participated in the past, 2017 is your year. Here are a few ways you can help: 

  • Help spread the word that the LCTD is meant to serve everyone, not just those who may be down on their luck. 
  • Donate. Monetary donations are accepted year-round at La Crosse Community Thanksgiving Dinner, Inc., P.O. Box 662, La Crosse, WI 54602-0662 or online at www.laxthanksgivingdinner.com.
  • Join the LCTD planning committee. You don’t have to commit to volunteering on Thanksgiving Day. As Lapp said, “There’s a lot of work that goes into planning a meal for more than 3,000 people.” 
  • Follow the La Crosse Community Thanksgiving Dinner Facebook page.
  • Come to the La Crosse Center on Thanksgiving Day and bring your family and friends. Celebrating with the community is a rewarding experience with priceless friendships and memories.

There are plenty of ways to pitch in and make a difference. According to Lapp, her 10 years of service have included picking up high school artwork, receiving generous donations on behalf of the LCTD, and seating individuals at the Thanksgiving dinner. She has visited the winter farmers market to pick up a large load of donated squash and gourds directly from the farmer, and she has been welcomed into people’s homes while delivering meals, among many other things.

Participating in the LCTD is an experience to remember. After all, it is put on by the community, for the community. And that community spirit doesn’t end once the last plate is cleared. Instead, all leftovers are donated to the Hunger Task Force of La Crosse and the Salvation Army so nothing goes to waste. 

According to Lapp, “The LCTD is about experiencing the feeling of community, not just living in it. To carry this feeling throughout the year, my advice is to never assume you know what someone else’s life is like simply by looking at them. Ask questions of your neighbors. Smile at people you see. When you see someone struggling, help when you can. The act of being kind is brief, but the feeling you give the recipient may last a lifetime.”