If you go

What: Thanksgiving Day dinner

When: 1 to 3 p.m. Thursday

Where: First Presbyterian Church, 1820 15th St., Boulder

Cost: Free

Info: fpcboulder.org

Vernon Ward remembers being on the business end of dire need.

Now the chef at Boulder's First Presbyterian Church, Ward -- who is directing preparations for Thursday's Thanksgiving dinner for the needy -- was reduced to living on the streets of Denver in the late 1990s.

He can't recall the specific holiday with certainty. He doesn't name a particular church or homeless shelter. But he remembers the graceless attitude with which he once saw charity dispensed.

"I'm not being ungrateful, but it was horrible," he said. "It was like, 'Here's your peanut butter and jelly, now, get on down the road. Either way, I'm going home, 'cause I've got a family. I've got a paycheck.'"

Ward, at the time, had just a little more than nothing. He was suffering a "deep depression," a recent divorce and emphysema caused by years of breathing noxious fumes while doing auto-body work. Additionally, he was wrestling the ravages of drug and alcohol dependency.

A U.S. Army veteran, Ward also had no place to call home. There were threats from his daughter that she would no longer permit him to see his grandchildren.

The miserly manner of someone who was supposed to be helping still lingers as vividly as the memory of those personal miseries Ward was enduring, little more than 10 years ago.

"That really stuck with me," said Ward, a 58-year-old Boulder resident, thinking back to when it was he who had his hand out in a season when so many people are celebrating an embarrassment of riches.

formerly homeless himself, Ward is helping direct the church s annual holiday dinner for the needy.
formerly homeless himself, Ward is helping direct the church s annual holiday dinner for the needy. ( MARK LEFFINGWELL )

He was gradually pulled out of his nosedive by friends who encouraged him to start frequenting a Saturday Bible study group at the Boulder church that came with soup included. Before he knew it, Ward went from eating the soup to preparing it at First Presbyterian Church.

"I was tired of being out on the streets," said Ward, who hasn't had a drink now for eight years. "That wasn't the way I wanted to live."

The 300 or more people who pour through the doors Thursday for the parish's annual Thanksgiving dinner in Oerter Hall don't need to fear being met with peanut butter and jelly. Nor will they suffer a dismissive attitude from volunteers.

Instead, they should expect roughly 500 pounds of fresh-cooked turkey, 60 pounds of yams, the same quantity of mashed potatoes, about 80 pounds of stuffing, six large sheets of cornbread, garden salads and green beans, veritable oceans of cranberry dressing, 45 to 50 pies -- the only items not being prepared on site -- plus enough gravy and beverages to wash it all down with ease.

'Love of people'

There's another critical item on the menu, according to Melonie Fusilier, hospitality coordinator and kitchen manager for the church.

"I think the secret is a love for people, and a desire to help people, and that comes from our faith," Fusilier said. "That's what really does it. It's a love of people."

Love counts -- but so does an ability to organize. Ward, who sported a U.S. Army ball cap as he directed about a dozen people in the church kitchen during this week's preparations, studied culinary arts at the Emily Griffith Technical College. But cooking is also in his blood. His family ran two different restaurants in Denver when he was growing up, and Ward is clearly in his element in a high-volume kitchen.

"We got another turkey (fresh out of one of the kitchen's four ovens). Anyone want to cut it for me?" Ward hollered during preparations on Tuesday. "If not, I can do it tomorrow."

He didn't have to wait long to see someone set upon the bronzed bird with a knife.

Vern Ward, left, drizzles olive oil onto turkeys while John Frazer, right, and Adam Gonzalez, back, rub in a spice mix in preparation for today s
Vern Ward, left, drizzles olive oil onto turkeys while John Frazer, right, and Adam Gonzalez, back, rub in a spice mix in preparation for today s Thanksgiving dinner at First Presbyterian Church in Boulder. ( MARK LEFFINGWELL )

"Why are you pulling the skin off the meat?" he shouted across to a volunteer dismantling another bird.

"You don't want the..."

"No, I don't," said Ward, without waiting for the volunteer to finish. "Lots of people like to have that browned skin, right along with their meat."

Ward is also comfortable enough in his role that last Sunday, the formerly homeless man stood up before the church congregation during a service and declared his goal: 30 donated turkeys, around which to build Thursday's feast.

The 30th bird was put in his hands by a woman who dropped by Tuesday with her son.

"Thank you and God bless you," Ward told them.

Safeway, King Soopers and Costco also have made contributions toward making the day a success.

'Kid on Christmas morning'

Rob Dean, a church deacon, expects as many as 350 people could show up to feast in two separate seatings between 1 and 3 p.m. Thursday, although the turnout could be somewhat trimmed by the mild weather the Front Range is experiencing this week.

Of those attending, according to Dean, roughly 200 might be homeless, with the balance being a mix of elderly, families that have fallen on hard times and even people who simply crave more company Thursday than they might otherwise be able to enjoy.

"We have fliers that are printed and the kids come in and pick up the fliers Thursday morning, and they will run around downtown Boulder" advertising the holiday dinner, Dean said. "But if the weather is warm, some of them will probably just be wanting to be outside.

"We're trying to help out the homeless, and sometimes they'd rather stay where they are -- camped out or whatever, particularly if they are not feeling cold or stressed."

Ward's motivation for his work as chef for numerous weekly and monthly events throughout the year at First Presbyterian Church has evolved over time.

"First, I did it because I had to," as a path out of the depression consuming him, he said. "Now, I do it because I want to."

Sizing up the beehive of activity in the kitchen as Thanksgiving approached, Ward added, "Now, I feel like a kid on Christmas morning."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Charlie Brennan at 303-473-1327 or brennanc@dailycamera.com.