GREENFIELD — It’s funny for Dean Low and Doug Addison to look out over the crowd now. To see the line of volunteers snake its way around the room, its members waiting to be handed a dish of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and an address for the delivery of holiday cheer.
It’s funny to think it all started with one woman and what seemed like an unreachable idea — invite needy families, any and all, to the Hancock County 4-H Fairgrounds on Thanksgiving Day and provide them a hot meal by delivery, dine-in or pickup.
They’d call it the Feast of Plenty, Lisa Muegge had said to them. And Low and Addison agreed to help — but they never imagined it would grow to this, an event serving thousands, resonating with the passion and joy Muegge brought to everything she did.
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For a decade, Muegge led a force of hundreds of volunteers who dished out and delivered thousands of Thanksgiving dinners to families in need across the county and into surrounding areas.
Muegge died unexpectedly in February at the age of 52, leaving behind a husband, three sons and countless friends who vowed to carry on her mission to feed the hungry at the holidays.
After Muegge’s death, those closest to her rallied together to host the Feast of Plenty in her absence, to keep her mission and memory alive, longtime volunteer Ty Hunt said.
They gathered Thanksgiving morning as they always do, got to cooking and organizing donations, Hunt said. When volunteers and visitors began to arrive, they greeted them with smiles and wishes of welcome — just as Muegge would have, he said.
It’s funny, now, for Low and Addison to think back on that moment when Muegge came up to them at an Eastern Hancock High School football game 10 years ago and first asked for their help to get the whole thing started.
They were certain she was kidding, certain she meant it was something they’d try the following year — Thanksgiving was only a few weeks away at that point — when they had more time to plan and prepare.
But no. They got started right away, putting Muegge’s plan to feed hungry strangers into action, Low said.
That first year, they fed some 300 people with the help of a few dozen volunteers. Now, they reach meal totals in the thousands each Thanksgiving, and the volunteers number too many to count, Addison said.
This year was undoubtedly different, organizers said.
There was no Muegge, scurrying around giving visitors her signature full-body hugs.
Someone else led the annual prayer that kicks off the morning.
The dinner — which its founder rarely took enough credit for, her friends said — now formally carries her name as the “Lisa Muegge Feast of Plenty,” and signs hung around the fairgrounds made sure everyone knew the new title.
But what lessened the longtime volunteers’ sadness for the loss of their dear friend was the feeling of joy they felt that her legacy had lived on, Hunt said. All of Muegge’s love and passion, her patience and kindness, were there Thursday in the well-oiled machine she left behind.
No one seemed to be in charge, and yet no one missed a beat. Each volunteer picked up where they had left the year before, manning sign-in tables, directing volunteers or dishing out meal after meal after meal.
Hunt anticipated the group would serve more than 1,600 dinners Thursday. Anything left over will be sent to homeless shelters or soup kitchens in the area, he said.
His favorite moment of the day each year is that feeling of gladness that sets in at the end of the feast. It’s more filling than any meal, he said.
“I tell people, let this be the start of your year of giving — not just a season,” Hunt said. “We end up with so much negative on a daily basis; hopefully, this is just (a day of) good.”
That’s what Muegge had hoped volunteers took away from the day, Hunt said. Most did, and came back year after year to help again.
But new faces always pop up in the crowd — a sign that Muegge’s mission is always spreading and touching new lives, Addison said.
Jill and Kent McQueeney of Greenfield came to pass out meals Thursday for the first time because their Thanksgiving Day schedule left them with a little more free time than usual. They brought along their 8-year-old daughter, Anna, to help, as well, hoping the youngster would come away from the day having witnessed a scene of how important community service is, Jill McQueeney said.
They’d never met Meugge, but they knew of her, the work she did and the lives she touched.
That drew them to the fairgrounds Thursday. And as they waited in line for their second delivery assignment of the day, they chatted and laughed together while enjoying each other’s company and the sense of friendship that surrounded everyone who gathered in Muegge’s memory.
And the warmth that surrounded them was one they hoped to make a holiday tradition.
“We’ll absolutely be back to help next year,” Jill McQueeney said.