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A Thanksgiving meal for the ages

The shirts said it all: Vetsgiving.

Once again, the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 18 of Carlton County organized a massive Thanksgiving campaign here: cooking, serving and delivering a record 950 meals to local residents.

It was the seventh year the DAV has taken charge of the community meal, after the College of St. Scholastica consolidated its Thanksgiving efforts into one giant meal in Duluth in 2016, leaving Cloquet with no local community meal. The DAV has seen attendance wax and wane since it stepped up in 2017 - including a strictly delivery or pickup-only service in 2020 due to the pandemic - but demand is growing again on all fronts.

"That's the first time we served every bit of turkey, it was that busy," said Raffy Johnson, DAV treasurer and the man at the top of an extensive community meal organizational chart. He estimated 500 deliveries across the county, and said the other 450 meals were divided between the sit-down or carryout meals at the church and at the VFW a little later in the day.

The Cloquet effort also included more volunteers than ever, with veterans and their family members joined by community members, Scouts and members of the Cloquet lacrosse and Bantam hockey teams.

"We only had six volunteer shirts left and we ordered more of those than we've ever ordered, over 100," Johnson said, describing how the hockey and lacrosse boys were part of the assembly line for delivery meals at the VFW, while the Boy Scouts helped out at Zion Lutheran Church, which offered sit-down or takeout meals.

"The athletes were so fast at the VFW, it was crazy. I think all the deliveries were out within an hour," he said.

Hockey player Ethan Kvitiek came for the second year in a row.

"We want to reach out, help out and give back to the community," he said.

The teenagers brought family members too. Hockey player Drew Piontek was joined by his mom, younger sibling and grandfather Paul Lautigar.

"I'm amazed by how many people it takes to do this," Lautigar said.

There were a lot of familiar faces in the kitchens at both locations, wearing the new Vetsgiving T-shirts as they baked turkey, warmed green beans, mixed up stuffing, boiled bags of mashed potatoes and cut hundreds of slices of pie.

Johnson said they had dozens of volunteers at the VFW, including about 20 delivery drivers, and 30-plus volunteers at the church.

"Having that many volunteers makes everything a little easier," he said. "Having two locations makes everything a little easier too."

How did it feel to serve that many people?

"Worried I was going to run out," he responded.

But there was just enough.

"I served the very last meal," Johnson said. "If one more person would have asked, I couldn't have delivered.

"The DAV would like to say thank you for the tremendous volunteer and community support," he said in closing.

The holiday season isn't over yet, however. The DAV will again offer a free Christmas meal at Zion Lutheran Church on Christmas Day.

"See you there," Johnson said.