The Thanksgiving holiday is a time to give thanks, share in community, eat good food and relax.
But for Todd Skinner and volunteers from YPCC God’s Portion, relaxing isn’t an option. For them, the day has become about serving.
Skinner, who owns The Bunkhouse and Big Daddy’s On the Green, both in Yelm, partnered with God’s Portion for Thanksgiving last year to combine their services for one big Thanksgiving meal open to anyone and everyone. Skinner provided the location and cooking talent, while God’s Portion provided most of the food.
“We’re closed just two days a year — Thanksgiving and Christmas — and we open our doors to anyone in need of a good Thanksgiving meal, for free,” Skinner said.
Skinner, a former Air Force cook, has been holding the free Thanksgiving meal out of The Bunkhouse, formerly in McKenna, for years.
“I’m a good background guy; I’m not a frontman. I enjoy cooking and I like seeing people happy with no stress. It’s hard to put into words. I do it because I feel like I’ve been led to do it,” he said while wiping away tears.
God’s Portion held its first free Thanksgiving meal in 2011 at The Red Caboose, which went out of business in 2012. When Skinner decided to move The Bunkhouse in April 2012 to the location of the former Red Caboose, he and God’s Portion teamed up for the first time for the annual holiday meal just months later. His good friend, Eric Heid, director of Military Operations Foreign and Domestic for USIA in Oregon, is Skinner’s only helper in the kitchen on Thanksgiving Day.
“I love to cook but don’t get a chance to much anymore,” Skinner said.
Heid, too, enjoys the work.
“What a better way to say thanks to the community than to shut your doors and provide a hot, free meal. It’s fun; we’ve got a great big roaster that we cook the turkeys in. I love to cook Thanksgiving dinner,” Heid said. “It’s fun and it’s different than anything I used to do for work or anything I do now for work.”
All are welcome to Thanksgiving at The Bunkhouse. There is no required dress, story or background necessary for a person to be served this Thanksgiving.
“If there’s a need we will feed it. I don’t care if they just think we’re open and they come in — then they’ll get blessed with a meal,” Skinner said. “People can come as they are, and there are no questions asked. If you’re hungry, come on in. Some of the stories that you hear make you grateful for what you have.”
Donations are welcome, but only if people are able to donate.
“If people can afford to donate I put out a booth, and if they can’t, they can’t. It all gets donated to God’s Portion for their fuel expenses,” Skinner said. “They feed people all year; I just feed them once a year on this day.”
This year Skinner will be serving up a menu of turkey, ham, salmon, mashed potatoes, yams, yeast rolls, cranberry sauce, fresh fruit and pies. But it’s not just the food that draws people, and it’s not just food that Skinner and Heid want people to get out of Thanksgiving at The Bunkhouse.
“We set it up in a buffet line and move all the tables together so there are no cliques here and there, so we make it a community feel,” Skinner said.
“You’re forced to make connections and you’re given the opportunity to sit next to someone you may have seen but never talked to,” Heid added.
Skinner’s first year closing his restaurant and opening his doors to give a free Thanksgiving meal resulted in only 35 people coming for dinner. Since then, however, word has spread and it continues to grow each year. Last year they anticipated 300 people but ended up feeding more than 450.
“Last year 500 meals were served; about 450 meals went out to shut-ins and people who ate here. Then 50 meals were to-go portions to take to other family members,” Heid said. “This year we expect it to be even bigger.”
God’s Portion, which is one of the largest food bank nonprofits in the Northwest, is known for providing food to those in need year-round. Director Dale Richardson said they wanted Thanksgiving to be a little different than the usual handing out of food.
“From January until now this year we’ve served 125,000 people through God’s Portion, but this is the only chance during the year that we get to give a meal that is cooked and served,” Richardson said. “Todd has been gracious enough to help us with that. We don’t know where everyone comes from, and we don’t care. We want to feed everyone that is hungry.”
Although Skinner and Heid will be cooking at the restaurant by 5:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving, the meal will be served to those in need from 1-4 p.m.
“I’ll be tired as a dog at the end of the day, but if you touch just one person and they do something nice for somebody else down the road,” Skinner said, “it was all worth it.”