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Monique Merrill 

Several places in Bellingham open their doors to share a meal during the holiday season. The Lighthouse Mission Ministries has been hosting a Turkey Dinner on the day after Thanksgiving for 94 years.

Jessica Hess, associate development director at the Mission, said they expect up to 500 people attending the event this year.

Classic Thanksgiving dishes are served family-style, with everyone around a big table and plates brought to them like a restaurant.

Hess and Development Director for the Mission, Rachel Tinnell, will be among the coordinators for this year’s dinner.

“Everyone is just really thankful to have the food and the opportunity to be there and have time to be together. For us, meals are a really important way of connecting with people to get them into our services more, to help them transition out of homelessness,” Tinnell said. “It’s really like a first start for people sometimes.”

Guests at the turkey dinner enjoy a meal. // Photo courtesy of Rachel Tinnell

The Mission is a homeless outreach organization in downtown Bellingham that has several buildings serving the needs of those who need it most.

“During the holidays it’s very lonely for people and it’s a time for relapse or just real difficult, dark places,” Tinnell said. “We try to make it as fun and festive as possible and really build relationships with people.”

The meal is served in Assumption Catholic School’s gymnasium from noon to 1:30 p.m., with the help of 135 volunteers.

Tinnell has seen a share of success stories come out of the Mission’s programming. Recently, a graduate of one of the Mission’s longer programs moved on from the course.

“He just was talking about how the Mission helped not just him, but his family, because they have a dad now. He was scared to be a dad because of his alcohol abuse problems,” Tinnell said. “So, just kind of rebuilding families. There’s just so many good stories of people.”

The Mission is a faith-based organization, though there’s no religious requirement to access their services. It has a drop-in center, shelter for women and children, more long-term housing and programs and classes available.

“We just ask that they can’t be using drugs and alcohol while they’re inside,”Tinnell said. “As long as they’re safe, we’ll welcome them in.”

The Mission’s drop-in center has been filled to capacity for the past few months, with 120 people staying there nightly.

In December, they host a Christmas dinner, but Tinnell said it’s much harder to find people to volunteer on Christmas Day. The Turkey Dinner draws a much more steady crowd of help.

“People always return to volunteer,” Tinnell said.

Volunteer positions fill up a few weeks before the dinner every year.

“The meals are just super fun. It’s just a really positive atmosphere, it’s festive, it’s a really fun thing to be a part of,” Hess said.

Scott Emory volunteers in the Mission’s kitchen every Monday morning, helping prepare food for the day. This year will be Emory’s fourth year volunteering for the Turkey Dinner.

“What makes me go back every year is that it’s a really needed thing. And I guess, unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more needed,” Emory said. “Just over the last couple years, the homeless situation here in Bellingham is getting really severe, and things like this are needed now more than ever.”

There were 719 homeless in Bellingham in 2016, according to the Whatcom Homeless Service Center. Bellingham’s homeless population has been increasing since 2009.

Emory enjoys seeing the turnout at the Mission’s event each year.

Holidays can be a hard time for people and the meal provides a way for the community to gather. // Photo courtesy of Rachel Tinnell

“It is really fun and rewarding to see all the volunteers show up and to see how much they enjoy serving,” Emory said.

This year, Emory is bringing about 17 people from his church, Hope and Christ, to volunteer for the meal. Emory encourages those around him to get involved with programs like the Mission’s Turkey Dinner because it helps not just those in need, but the volunteers themselves.

“When people work together as a team to do something useful, needed, with a purpose, it’s rewarding,” Emory said. “And I think people do feel rewarded when they do something good like this.”

Another way to help support the Mission’s mission is through the Western Community Outreach club. The club raises money to buy and deliver supplies to those in need every other week. Hannah Svendsen is the co-president of the club.

Svendsen said the club has been around for eight years and delivers supplies to the Mission year round.

“We’ll go in there with food, toiletries and just whatever we can contribute,” Svendsen said. “Right now, we’ve been doing a lot of warm gloves and hats because it’s so cold out.”

Tinnell and Hess are both Western graduates and interned with the Mission while they were at Western.

“We just really appreciate [Western’s] interest and love for the community, even if they’re here for just four years. We like having them involved here,” Tinnell said.

The Mission is among several places in Bellingham that offers a warm meal for those in need around the holidays. Old Town Cafe hosts a free Thanksgiving meal from 10 a.m to 3 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, as well as a few churches.

Volunteers pose for a picture in Assumption Catholic School’s gymnasium, where the meal is held every year. // Photo courtesy of Rachel Tinnell

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