January 15, 2021
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Free Thanksgiving dinner is all about community

  • Linda Collins is seen with a cherished picture of herself with her late husband Roger next to the last train shaped BBQ grill he made. Linda and Roger used this and the other grills he made to cook the turkeys for the free Community Church Thanksgiving tradition the two of them started. Photo by Robert Grant

By: Patrick Norton
November 20, 2020

Steam locomotives take a lot of energy to get going, but once they gather enough inertia, they are practically unstoppable. A Sebastopol train enthusiast, the late Roger Collins’s conception of a free community Thanksgiving dinner has gained momentum in much the same way. The free Thanksgiving dinner in Sebastopol is put on annually by a group of volunteers. Due to local mandates around COVID-19, this year will be the first time the free dinner will not be held in person. However, volunteers will serve the residents of Burbank Heights & Orchards Senior Housing and the Fircrest Mobile Home Park via delivery. Having adapted to the current situation, the event continues to forge ahead just as its creator would have wanted. 

The free Thanksgiving dinner is a homegrown event. A dream brought into reality by local legend and gentle giant the late Roger Collins in 2001. “Roger was a huge guy with a big beard. He looked like a biker and might scare the crap out of you if you didn’t know him, but he had the biggest heart,” says event volunteer and coordinator Denelle Tognozzi. According to Roger’s wife Linda, “The event itself was born out of the collective national tragedy of September 11, after which, Roger felt a great need to do something positive for the community.” Roger knew he wanted to give back and was determined to do so. He came up with the idea of feeding community members in need for Thanksgiving. As his idea took shape Roger reached out to the Sebastopol Chamber of Commerce. The chamber helped with advertising and connected Roger with The Sebastopol Community Church.  The church generously offered the space to host the event and have continued to do so for the last twenty years. 

The first dinner “whistled off” in 2001 and has been going ever since. Initially, the event drew less attendance than Roger had hoped for. “People were unclear about the event, but Roger was not giving up on his dream,” says Rogers’s wife Linda. A few years in, the event was gathering steam and became a beautiful example of community outreach. When hosted at The Sebastopol Community Church the dinner serves local seniors and homeless. Anyone is welcome including those without extended family or with no family with whom to share Thanksgiving.

Both Sonoma County locals, Roger and Linda settled in Sebastopol. Roger attended El Molino High and Linda Analy High School. The Analy/El Molino high school rivalry became a source of playful teasing throughout the couple’s years together. The couple met serendipitously in 1977 over a shared love of dogs. Over a period of time their connection deepened and they married in December of 1980. “Roger was larger than life. Everything he did was big” Linda comments.  This included Rogers’s love for trains. A passion he shared with his friend and partner in crime Phil Parker. The two collaborated to build stainless steel barbeques in the shape of steam locomotives that were eventually used for the Thanksgiving dinners. Together they built four of the train-shaped barbeques, each version larger than the last. Apparently as the event grew, so did the barbeques for roasting the turkeys. Linda emphasizes that despite the event being Rogers dream, he would not want to be honored in the traditional sense. “It wasn’t about him. It was about the community, and our phenomenal volunteers.” Linda relays. As the event strode through the years the volunteer base grew. Some of the volunteers came and went. Others returned year after year. One couple who met volunteering at the dinner were married a few years later themselves. Of course, Linda and Roger helped cater the wedding. 

In 2019 the event faced its biggest set back to date with the passing of event originator Roger Collins. At first there was trepidation regarding whether the event would continue. However, Roger’s wife Linda courageously kept the momentum alive. Relayed by Denelle Tognozzi, Linda said, “We’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do this for Roger.” Looking back on the last year Linda recollects “It’s been a challenge to say the least.” This year the Thanksgiving dinner has a new challenge. COVID-19. Due to county mandates it will be the first year the dinner will not be served at The Sebastopol Community Church. Not being able to gather is the saddest part for Linda and the team. In years past the group has served upwards of 500, 600 and 700 meals. Last year delivering 200 meals to the homeless camp on the Joe Rodota trail alone. However, this year due to adaptations around COVID-19 a total of 200 meals will be delivered to Burbank Heights & Orchards Senior Housing and the Fircrest Mobile Home Park. According to Denelle Tognozzi, “We won’t be able to serve walk-ups this year. That’s the hardest part. We don’t want to turn anyone away.” Regardless of the challenges, the original spirit of perseverance continues. This year’s Thanksgiving meal will give the gifts of nourishment and strength to our community. Encouraging others to overcome current difficulties and look optimistically to the future.