In Hawaiian, “ohana” translates to “family.” It’s clear when talking to Carolyn Carpio of Ohana Farms Northwest that the annual, free Thanksgiving dinner is centered around family.
Now in their eighth year, Carpio, her family and her community will not just host a fresh and bountiful dinner open to anyone who needs it, but will also offer a day of getting other needs met. These include clothes, toiletries, haircuts and gift cards, along with games, music, laughter and conversation.
“They feel like they’ve been at a party and there’s a celebration,” says Carpio of those that attend her free Thanksgiving dinner.
But, Carpio takes preparing Thanksgiving dinner to the next level – she makes sure everyone can get to the food too.
Thirteen years ago the family ran Da Kine’s Café in Eastridge Business Park. “Da kine” is a Hawaiian expression similar to “whatchamacallit” in English. After a few years of operation, the café started to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner for the needy and walk the food across the street to the church and community center. But the restaurant life took a toll on the family, Carpio says, and they sold the café three years ago.
The free Thanksgiving dinner is now hosted by St. John The Evangelist Catholic Church. This move, off the bus line, made it more difficult for people to reach the church, something Carpio knew was critical. The first year they borrowed a bus to pick up their guests. Last year, with the help of former mayor Royce Pollard, a bus was donated by the Fort Vancouver Historical Trust. They pick up at three different locations – the transit station at Hazel Dell, St. Andrew’s Lutheran on Gher Road and at Esther Short Park.
“We pick them up, they spend the day with us and we bring them back,” says Carpio.
Guests arrive at about 11:00 a.m. and receive a ticket to access the table of goods, including socks, hats, gloves, toys and books. “Basically, anything we can get that people donated,” says Carpio. There are also racks of clothes, particularly jackets. Guests also leave with a bag of personal toiletries and, as a special treat, approximately 30-40 bags have a loaf of freshly baked bread by a church parishioner. “They come in like ninjas,” says Carpio of the anonymous parishioner and his family. “They swoop in, drop off their bread and are off to Portland,” where they also deliver bread.
Then the guests eat dinner, and maybe more than once. In 2016, Ohana Farms has about 200 guests and served 300 meals. After the guests are fed, they might participate in a cake walk to win donated cakes and cupcakes. Or, guests may wish to have a free haircut from Moe’s Hairstyling. “Last year they were so busy,” said Carpio, who counted about 30 people who received free haircuts.
Carpio recalls a poignant story of a guest with cancer. The woman explained to some of the other guests and volunteers that she had cancer and her sink was full of hair in the morning. They encouraged her to cut the hair. “She got her hair shaved all off,” says Carpio. “She came back to the table a new woman.”
Another guest was also suffering with cancer. The man handed Carpio $20, all the money he had in his wallet. Carpio tried to refuse the money, but the man insisted. “I’m not going to be here to spend this,” Carpio recalls him saying. “I can’t think of anybody I’d rather have it.” Carpio was moved by his story and his gesture.
The food is prepared by the members of Carpio’s family, and last year an “abundance of volunteers” assisted. The dinner has also enjoyed surprisingly generous donors. Carpio has “a nice long list of things” she needs in order to pull off the event. The list is always satisfied, she says.
One of the things on her list is to get $600 together to buy $25 gift cards to WinCo. These cards are not able to be used for alcohol or cigarettes, just food. Carpio makes sure every family has one in their pocket when they leave.
During late November, dinner is her focus but during the summer months Carpio and her husband Russ also run a farm stand with produce planted and harvested by the couple. The farm stand has a “take what you need and pay what you can” policy. She doesn’t advertise, but sits and waves at traffic “until my arm falls off,” she says. They only ask for a reasonable donation.
“I want you to know this is not about me,” says Carpio about the feat she coordinates each year. She says her only part is to “get the ball rolling.” It seems to be a big ball, but she has help at every step.
“It’s part of who we are, my son and my daughters,” she says, referring in part to her upbringing in Hawaii and the family’s community spirit. She says Hawaii is her heart and her culture.
“We don’t come from rich roots. We’re just like the people. We’re going through the same life challenges,” Carpio says who is 71-years-old with Parkinson’s disease. She also had a gall bladder issue this year and knee replacement. Russ is 75. They both work on the garden and she still works outside the home. “Most of the people are struggling and we are too, but we want to share. All this struggle has brought us, all of us, together to get through this mess.”
You can find the free Thanksgiving dinner at St. John The Evangelist Catholic Church in Vancouver on Thursday, November 23, 2017. For reservations or to learn more, call 360-798-7622.