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Gurnee Community Church, Morton Grove American Legion, plan Thanksgiving feasts for Navy recruits

Members of Gurnee Community Church prepare the 2009 Thanksgiving dinner. (Courtesy Gurnee Community Church)

Members of Gurnee Community Church prepare the 2009 Thanksgiving dinner. (Courtesy Gurnee Community Church)

Navy recruits choose desserts at GUnree Community Church during the 2009 Thanksgiving meal. (Courtesy Gurnee Community Church)

John Hintz and his crew get to Gurnee Community Church in the wee hours on Thanksgiving morning to begin preparations for a growing holiday tradition — a feast with area residents and recruits from Great Lakes Naval Training Center.

The preparation actually starts the day before Thanksgiving, when church members chop vegetables and prepare the meat.

At about 2 a.m. on Thanksgiving, the turkeys are placed in roasters on the church grounds. The carvers show up around 5 a.m. This year they’ll be slicing into 25 20-pound turkeys. The birds will be served with gravy and stuffing, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, and pies donated by the American Legion.

“It’s all homemade,” said Hintz, of Park City, who has been supervising the kitchen for about six years. “…We use a Cajun spice inside and out. Everybody loves it.”

The church, located at 4555 Old Grand Ave. in Gurnee, has extended an invitation to area residents to join the recruits in the meal, which will be served at noon.

The event was conceived as a day away from the base for 150 recruits. But church members expect to also serve some 200 residents of Northern Lake County, according to this year’s Thanksgiving Committee Chairman, Rich Basarich of Gurnee.

“Everybody is welcome,” Basarich said. “We normally have more food than we need.”

The Thanksgiving dinner for recruits has evolved since Sept. 11, 2001. After the terrorist attacks, higher security constraints prohibited civilians from hosting small groups of recruits in their homes, said church member Tricia Elsbury, of Gurnee.

A Navy veteran, Elsbury said she understands well that leaving the base for a respite from training is a welcome treat. She said it’s not unusual for a round of cheers – and a few tears – to break out when the wheels of the bus cross out of the base. The average age of a recruit is 19, and for many it is their first time away from home.

“When these kids leave the base, they don’t know where they’re going. All they know is they’re getting off the base,” Elsbury said. “To get a chance to get away from the base is such a joy for them.”

More than a good meal awaits the recruits, who depart at 9 a.m. on buses donated by Gurnee School District 56.

With phones and cards donated by Verizon, the recruits may call home at stations set up in four rooms at the church. Other rooms have televisions tuned to football. Recruits may also watch movies or play video games. Some areas of the church are reserved for people who want quiet time.

Pictures are taken throughout the day and immediately posted on the church’s website, so recruits’ family members may access them.

The recruits return to base at 6 p.m.

Elsbury said she often hears from the recruits and their families about the meal, sometimes weeks after Thanksgiving. Some families have visited the church when they attend graduation ceremonies.

The annual Thanksgiving dinner has become one of the church’s biggest events as far as reaching out to the community, Gurnee Community Church Senior Pastor Chris Stephens said.

“It is a rallying point for us as a church community,” Stephens said. “What has amazed and pleased us is this has become a tradition for people that are not part of our congregation.”

Also hosting Navy recruits will be the Morton Grove American Legion Post No. 134. The 50 recruits will travel by bus donated by the Cook County School Bus Co. to spend the day.

They will be served a Thanksgiving dinner will all the trimmings. Recruits will be able to call home and send e-mails with equipment donated by AT&T. The day’s events will be filmed, and a DVD will be sent to the recruits’ families.


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