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Thanks, Cornelius

All-community holiday meal in Cornelius draws a mix of grateful diners

Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Open Door Counseling Center volunteer Charles Bennett chats with Washington County Sheriff's Commander John Koch over dinner at the Cornelius Community Dinner. It took 30 turkeys, 280 pounds of potatoes, 2,000 tamales and a wide array of volunteers to put on a free Community Thanksgiving Dinner last week at Cornelius Elementary School.

People from more than 20 organizations, including government agencies, community groups, churches and businesses, pitched in and pulled it off, feeding more than 400 people and in the process, connecting with neighbors they’d never met.

A broad range of people — Latino and white, elderly and young, homeowners and homeless — streamed in the front doors to find two different kinds of food-laden plates lined up on a table. One contained turkey tamales with a side of beans and rice. Another contained turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes and a roll. Each diner chose a plate and took it to the school’s gym, where wrapped silverware and bowls of freshly made salsa sat waiting on long tables.

Margery and George Kaepernik, 77 and 76, came out for dinner from a nearby mobile-home park, where they saw a flier for the event. The two said they often go to church dinners and they were pleased with the meal and how courteous and helpful the volunteers were.

“She wouldn’t leave me alone until I brought her out,” said George, who drew a playful glance from Margery.

Charles Bennett said a bus and the promise of dinner brought him to Cornelius from Beaverton. He said he’s lived most of his life in Washington County and heard about the dinner from friends. The free holiday meal seemed to bring out the best in people, he said. “I wish all communities did this.”

While chewing on an after-dinner donut, Bennett greeted Washington County Sheriff’s deputies walking by and asked them to check up on a friend of his who lives in town who might be associating with someone troublesome.

Enrique Chun, a resident of Cornelius for 20 years, came to the dinner for the food and because he’s been working on his English for the last three years and figured it would be a good opportunity to practice. He works in a factory in Forest Grove, where he doesn’t have many opportunities to do that. But he wants to improve his job prospects by learning the language.

Danielle Soc Lopez of Cornelius showed up at the school at 8 a.m. to help prepare the meal. She said her husband is Guatemalan and she’s heard stories of people in need in Cornelius and wanted to help out.

Soc Lopez said she was really impressed with the way businesses stepped up, particularly the local WalMart, which helped out with fresh-baked pies. (WalMart also donated 15 turkeys, as did Fred Meyer.) Soc Lopez also noted the large church presence.

“We were talking about how seven different religions (denominations) have been here helping the community,” she said, counting volunteers from Catholic, Latter-day Saints, Seventh-Day Adventist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Emanuel Lutheran, Real Life Christian and Sonrise churches, plus another she couldn’t remember at the moment.Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - (L to R clockwise) Bob Cate, David Burleson, and Robby Cate joke with Cornelius City Councilor Dave Schamp.

For more than a decade, Centro Cultural de Washington County, a community organization with a focus on local Latinos, has hosted a free community dinner in Cornelius each year around Thanksgiving.

Juana Meraz, outreach coordinator for Centro, said that although this year’s dinner was more ambitious, it was easier because of all the outside help.

The crowd this year was still heavily Latino, but definitely more diverse than at Centro’s free holiday dinner last year, said City Manager Rob Drake, who volunteered at both. This year, he donned an apron over his shirt and tie and wore black plastic gloves as he served food.

Besides getting a meal to people who might need it, Drake hoped residents who might not normally interact would mingle with each other, which could be the start of even greater things. He specifically pointed to the uniformed sheriff’s deputies peppering the crowd.

Washington County Sheriff’s Lt. Gene Moss, who has served as police chief since the sheriff took over the Cornelius Police Department in July, came up with the community dinner idea.

“We’re trying to reach out to the broader community,” he said. “We’ve tried to use some of the churches to reach out to homeless.”

Sheriff Pat Garrett himself showed up at the dinner, along with Undersheriff Jeff Mori and 10 to 12 deputies ready to volunteer.

Drake said Garrett initially worried members of the Latino community might be unnerved by all the uniformed officers and he sent a few deputies back to work. But part of the reason for the dinner was to help Cornelius residents get to know the person behind the uniform, which is why many deputies sat down and chatted with diners.

“They’re a really friendly group,” Drake said of the deputies now serving in Cornelius. “These guys would love nothing more than to change behavior without the hammer.”

Luis Nava, a Latino activist and director at large for Centro who also attended the dinner, said he wants to see more Latinos and Spanish-speakers in law enforcement. As if on cue, a deputy passed by and commented to Nava, “Estoy muy satisfecho” (I’m very satisfied) in an accent that hinted he wasn’t fluent but was at least trying to learn.

Nava also wants to get Cornelius Latinos — roughly half the city’s population — more engaged in civic life by serving on various boards and running for City Council, which has only one Latino member.

The community dinner was a good start, said Nava. “We are integrating all elements of the community — the schools, the police, the homeless.”

“If you lift the lid off Cornelius,” Drake said, “there are great challenges and there’s great promise.”

Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Volunteer Luis Nava surveys the tables. He and all the other volunteers hope the dinner’s success will create more of a family-like feeling between residents of Cornelius, which bills itself as “Oregon’s Family Town.”

It was turning out that way for Robby Cate, a member of Sonrise Church, one of the event’s many co-sponsors.

By the time Cate arrived to help, there was an overflow of volunteers. So Cate decided to wait around and help with cleanup — and to have a turkey dinner while he waited.

Sitting and eating, he saw plenty of people he knew from the area, Cate said. “It’s been like a family reunion.”

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