The tantalizing smell of fried chicken wafted through the air of the Silverthorne Elks Lodge, tickling the noses of the row of people waiting in line for the weekly community dinner. Organizer and Rotarian Deborah Hage sat at the front of the line, pen in hand, welcoming diners and making a mark on the tally sheet for each one.
"Welcome, welcome," she said to each. "We have fried chicken, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob!"
The visitors replied with smiles and exclamations of anticipation, edging further down the line as Hage's tally edged closer and closer to the big number.
When the count finally came, it was Silverthorne resident and frequent diner Stuart "Boot" Gordon who had the honor of receiving the 60,000th meal served by the community dinner. Other diners clapped, cheered and pounded on the tables while Gordon smiled and bowed. Hage and fellow Rotarian Joni Bauer presented him with a large cake, complete with lit candles.
The idea for the dinner came about in 2008, when Hage noticed a growing need in the county for food services, particularly hot, cooked meals. Support for this idea came from all sides - the Summit County Rotary Club, the Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church and the Summit County Elks Lodge, which offered its commercial kitchen as the ideal site. The initial funding came from Rotary grant money and was used to purchase food and supplies, ready for the first dinner in March 2009.
Unlike other such dinners, this community dinner was started with the goal to be open to any and all comers, regardless of need. Everyone was welcome, whether they were low-income families, homeless, struggling temporarily or just looking for a place to sit, eat a good meal and make conversation.
That first community meal served 50 people. The next night, 62 people came. The numbers continued to rise as word spread. Nearly 300 people were served each week for the first two years. It reached its peak one night in December 2011 when a record-setting 557 people arrived for a meal.
It's not just the meals that draw people in, however, but the feel of community. People come in families and groups of friends; the buzz of conversation fills the dining room. Some even celebrate their birthdays at the dinner.
"It brings together people of all generations," said Anne Watts, a counselor at Silverthorne Elementary and community dinner volunteer.
"It's a real social event for people," Hage added. "They come and talk and chat."
One of the community dinner bragging points is that each meal is full-sized restaurant style, consisting of a main course, fresh salad, fresh fruit, bread, vegetables and dessert. Now, local restaurants donate about one in five meals. Organizations take turns on a rotating schedule to prepare and serve the meals, including chefs from nearby resorts.
"It's always awesome. The volunteers, the cooks, everybody's awesome," said diner Zach Giffin. "I come here every Tuesday. I've probably contributed to more than 40 of those (meals served)."
Looking back over the years and meals served, Hage said she's still amazed by the draw of the dinner and the need she still sees.
"I'm kind of surprised; I never thought it would go this long," she said. "We saw it as a stop-gap for a very bad economy and ... people still need it. It just keeps going along."
When the dinner wasn't needed anymore, Hage said, she and her colleagues assumed that the numbers would taper off and people would eventually stop coming, "but that hasn't happened yet."
Although the economic outlook has changed since that first dinner in 2008, it's clear to those at the dinner that there is still plenty of need.
"Every 10,000 people I want to make a big deal because I want to come back to the county and say, look this is still a need, this is still important," Hage said. "We still have the working poor, we still have families who don't have enough food, we still have children who aren't getting fed a sufficient dinner, this is still important."
While people have continued showing up for meals, so have volunteers, supporters and sponsors continued to dedicate time and money to support the dinner. When something needs fixing, such as when the convection ovens needed replaced or a pipe backed up, community members step forward to help.
"It's a worldwide issue," said Hage, about hunger in the community. "What makes it relatively easy to tackle here in Summit County is because we have such generous donors and so many people eager and organizations eager and willing to volunteer. So it's not as if there isn't support. We are really blessed in Summit County that this gets a lot of support."