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Volunteers make Thanksgiving happen for the multitude

Aubrey Wierimaa offers her mother, Kaili Harris, a piece of turkey during the annual Thanksgiving buffet at the DECC in 2014. (Duluth News Tribune file photo)1 / 2
Volunteers peel and slice carrots at the DECC on for last year's annual Twin Ports Region Thanksgiving Buffet. (Duluth News Tribune file photo)2 / 2

For the past 20 to 25 years, Mike Switzer has spent his Thanksgiving baking turkey, stirring mashed potatoes, preparing gravy and serving food for nearly 6,000 people. He's one of the several hundred volunteers who help at the annual Twin Ports Thanksgiving Buffet at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

"It's a group effort. We couldn't do it without all the help. I'm just one of the many," Switzer said.

Switzer and his family started volunteering shortly after the buffet moved to the DECC from the Library restaurant in Superior, where the dinner was started by Dan Cohen and Jack Teske.

"When it started here, I had a daughter who was 6 or 7 years old at the time, and I wanted to show her that it was important to help people who have it less fortunate than her," Switzer said. "Plus, like many of the people who come here, I don't have any extended family in the area, so we could come serve here."

At first Switzer signed up to help serve, but he later found he enjoyed preparing food back in the kitchen. He even established a system to improve the process.

"The first time I went down there, they had the big ovens that they put the food in before it goes out on the serving tray. People were putting the stuff in pretty haphazardly. I said, 'Wait a minute' and I took a piece of paper and wrote, 'Turkey' and put it on one door. 'Let's put all the turkey in one area, all the mashed potatoes in another area, that way when we need to take stuff out, we know where it is,'" Switzer said.

This action signaled Switzer out as a leader and soon other volunteers were turning to him to ask for advice and directions.

"So I just started telling people what to do. And a friend of mine, Carol, who was one of the early organizers, she threw me a red shirt. I said, 'What's that for?' She said, 'You're in charge of the back.' I said, 'OK.'"

Today, Switzer is well known among the kitchen volunteers.

"I don't even sign up anymore, I just show up. They know I'm coming," Switzer said.

When he retired 9 years ago, he started coming earlier in the week to help with the prep work.

"I figured I didn't have anything to do on Tuesday or Wednesday, so I'd go down and help slice and peel potatoes," Switzer said. "I'll be there 6 or 7 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday."

On Thursday, he's there from start to finish. His main task is being in charge of the gravy.

Afterwards, Switzer and his wife will eat Thanksgiving dinner at the buffet with the many friends they've made through volunteering for many years.

"I know just about everyone down there, especially if people come several times," Switzer said. "It's nice for us too because I don't want to cook a 10-12-pound bird for just the two of us."

What keeps Switzer coming back every year?

"It's a good thing to do. It helps people who are less fortunate and even some who just don't have someplace to go on Thanksgiving," Switzer said. "I've seen several friends of mine who are single guys down there. What else is a single guy going to do on Thanksgiving day? You can only watch so many football games."

The annual Twin Ports Thanksgiving Buffet is from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Thurs. Nov. 24 at the DECC, 350 Harbor Dr.The community is invited to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings, including roasted turkey, potatoes, gravy and dinner rolls. Free transportation to the DECC will be provided by the Duluth Transit Authority. See the schedule for more details.

Teri Cadeau

Teri Cadeau is a reporter for the Budgeteer.

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