Hundreds enjoy free Thanksgiving dinners in Hamilton, Stevensville

Several dozen people enjoyed a free meal on Thanksgiving at Hamilton's Maria's Restaurant. "They were very grateful and thankful for haing a place to come on the holiday," said the restaurant's co-owner Maria Chavez.

A pair of free Thanksgiving dinners in Hamilton and Stevensville touched hundreds of people in the Bitterroot Valley last week.

“It was incredible,” said Stevensville Community Thanksgiving Dinner organizer Christy Martin. “We had so many volunteers come that we had everything set up and ready to go an hour before the dinner began. We had people coming in asking if they could help who hadn’t even signed up for a shift.”

By the time the dinner was done, volunteers served about 225 people at the Stevensville School cafeteria and in the community. Martin said volunteers delivered meals as far away as Corvallis to shut-ins.

“There were some disabled vets who were unable to get out of their homes,” she said. “We had people deliver meals to them. We also had people going out and picking up senior citizens so they could come to the school and enjoy the meal with others from the community.”

Martin said she watched five or six different people take off their name badges at the end of the meal and write down their phone numbers so they could connect with their new acquaintances sometime in the future.

After the dinner was over, Martin said volunteers took the leftover food to Genesis House in Stevensville, which is a transitional group home for women with mental illness.

“There was probably enough food for two full meals, plus some extra mashed potatoes,” Martin said.

All of the leftover canned and packaged food, as well as $238 in cash donations, was delivered Monday to the Food Pantry.

“All of it was absolutely wonderful,” Martin said. “We had tons of people put their names on a mailing list. Lord willing, we’ll do it again next year. If there is a need for it in the community and people want it to continue, I’ll keep doing it.”

In Hamilton, Maria’s Restaurant owners, Maria Chavez and her husband, Martin Morales, offered a free Mexican-style Thanksgiving meal.

Moved by the couple’s generosity, Salim Matt Gras decided to spend the holiday serving as a volunteer at the restaurant.

“I really got more than I gave soaking up all the warmth and love dished out in abundance along with the food,” Gras said. “Each of the several dozen people who came through the door was greeted personally by Maria or Martin with at least a big smile and a hug if they wanted it.”

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Chavez said she lost track of the number of the people who came.

“It went very well,” she said. “I sat down and talked with as many people as I could. It was very touching. They were very grateful and thankful for having a place to come on the holiday. Some people told me they didn’t have any family here, and they would have been alone on Thanksgiving without the dinner.”

“We had a lot of people who were super sweet,” Chavez said. “I got lots of hugs.”

The couple’s decision to give back to the community has been contagious. The bulletin board where people pin pay-it-forward tabs for anyone in the community who needs a free meal is overflowing.

“You should see the wall right now,” Chavez said. “It’s amazing. A lady came in here recently who has breast cancer and money is tight right now for her. She told me, ‘I can’t thank you enough. This means a lot to my family.’ Those are the kinds of stories we are hearing from people.”

“The word keeps spreading,” she said. “People are so generous. They are making a difference in our community. People can come in here and get a meal to go. We do whatever makes them feel comfortable. Everyone is happy to be able to help.”