GIFFORD — Less than two weeks after a tornado lifted the home of Vicki and Jack Russell off its foundation with them inside, the Gifford couple sat down to an abundant Thanksgiving feast in Vicki's onetime home church.
Being at this dinner, provided by Gifford United Methodist Church and a host of volunteers, "means the world to me," she said.
"We're amongst friends, and that's what Thanksgiving is all about," her husband added.
It was the fourth year for the church's community Thanksgiving dinner welcoming anyone who needs a holiday meal and some company to go with it.
Last year, 86 people came to this dinner, but the church was prepared to serve hundreds this year since the Nov. 17 tornado damaged so many homes and it was expected there would be many who would need a place to go for a Thanksgiving meal, said lay minister Gail Meyers, who headed up the dinner.
In all, "we only got about 100," Meyers said after the three-hour serving period ended.
There was a lot of leftover food, he said, but no matter. It can all be frozen and used for continued relief efforts in Gifford.
Just before 11 a.m. — as tables laden with food were waiting for the first arrivals — Meyers talked about all the volunteers, donations and desire to help that went into putting on this dinner.
"I've got a warm feeling in my heart," he said.
A Gifford resident himself, he escaped the tornado with nothing but some damage to a plastic shed at his home.
Some of the volunteers serving the turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, gravy, dressing, vegetables, rolls, beverages, cookies and pie had been busy preparing since the early hours.
The rolls went into the oven at 5 a.m., said one volunteer, Martha Barnett, 74.
Barnett lives just outside of town, and the tornado damaged just some trees and roof shingles at her home.
"But our neighbor to the north of us lost everything," she said.
Linda Masengale, 69, of Rossville arrived at 9:30 a.m.
"I lost my husband a year-and-a-half ago and thought this would be a good thing to spend my day doing," she said.
Kelly Ankenbrand of Hoopeston spent the day volunteering at the dinner with family members.
"We usually do Thanksgiving together, so we're still together, so that's all that matters," she said.
The technology coordinator at Gifford Grade School, Ankenbrand said the tornado has been tough on students.
"I think they've lost their sense of safety and security," she said.
But the spirit of local families has been amazing, she added.
"I feel so fortunate to be part of this community," Ankenbrand said.
Two American Red Cross representatives were also at the dinner to see if anyone needed services, and to pass out plush Mickey Mouse toys to the kids.
Common reactions to a disaster can include loss of sleep, nightmares, acting out and sometimes developmental regression for kids, said Maryellen Taylor, a Red Cross Disaster Mental Health worker from California.
The Russells, who live on West North Street, said their manufactured house is still standing but unsafe to live in.
They survived the tornado crouched between a toilet and shower in their bathroom when their house was lifted off the foundation and slammed back down again.
"He was with us, though — the Lord," said 61-year-old Jack Russell.
The couple managed to save most of what was inside their house, and is staying with family in Penfield. It will take four to six months to replace their home, the Russells said.
The Rev. Lisa Wiedman, the church's pastor, said the dinner was about "normalcy" for this community.
No matter what anyone lost, she said, it's a way to be thankful.
Wiedman has seen a lot of Gifford residents putting into practice what the Bible teaches: Love God, love your neighbor.
The "love your neighbor" sentiment is so strong, she said, that people are reluctant to take supplies the church has available for those in need.
People keep saying, "somebody many need them more than I do," Wiedman said.
The church at 351 W. Plumb St. will hold a Blue Christmas Service at 5 p.m. Dec. 22 for all who have suffered a loss or are alone or in need, Wiedman said.