A new Berkeley tradition: family Thanksgiving for 300

It’s a Thanksgiving tradition for family to gather for a feast. A new take on that tradition began Tuesday with Berkeley Recreational Sports (Rec Sports) partnering with Hotel Durant and Henry’s to provide a free Thanksgiving dinner to 300 students unable to get home for the holiday. Dozens of campus and community volunteers greeted and served the guests.

Students described the banquet as "very homey" and "really nice." "We miss home," freshman Brandon Chou explained, "and we like the atmosphere here." (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Students described the banquet as “very homey” and “really nice.” “We miss home,” freshman Brandon Chou explained, “and we like the atmosphere here.” (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

“Many of our students at Cal did not have the resources this year to travel home for the holiday, so our hope is to start a new tradition – to open our hearts and create a new family circle at Thanksgiving,” said Joe Watz, senior associate director of Rec Sports, which co-hosted the event held at the hotel and restaurant.

The majority of dinner registrations were filled within days, and more than 50 volunteers – a combination of staff and community partners – also quickly signed up to greet students and serve traditional Thanksgiving fare, including 16 turkeys. The students ate in three shifts, beginning at 4:30 p.m. and ending at 9 p.m., filling their plates at a buffet, meeting new friends and building community with those who attended.

“We were surprised that so many students at Cal had a need for a place to spend Thanksgiving and to eat a traditional holiday meal at a time when the rest of us can be with family and eat more than we should,” said Gary Kohler, director of sales and marketing for Hotel Durant and Henry’s, who estimated that it cost $12,000 to provide staffing and food for the students and volunteers. “It’s a population we didn’t realize was there. We wanted to help.”

The gathering "makes us very happy," says Natsuki Yamaoka (right), with her friend Maina Sato, at the buffet. Both are international students. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

The gathering “makes us very happy,” said Natsuki Yamaoka (right), seen here with her friend Maina Sato. Both are international students. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

“I’m thankful that UC Berkeley takes care of its students, especially the ones who can’t go home for the holidays,” said Tracey Chen, a sophomore from Southern California who attended the banquet with friends. She and Jennifer Shim, also a sophomore, agreed that it was especially helpful that the meal was free.

Maina Sato and Natsuki Yamaoka said the feast “sounded like fun,” so they signed up. “We’re international students,” said Yamaoka, “and it’s very difficult for us to go back home during the semester.”

“It’s really good to have this,” added Soto.

Volunteer Alvaro Pereira, a Berkeley Ph.D. student, said he enjoyed making sure guests like 12-year-old Jaden Hill and his mother, Nina, a Berkeley transfer student, received Thanksgiving cheer. Both mother and son expressed their hope that the event reappears next year.

Alvaro Pereira, a Ph.D. student at Berkeley Law, said he volunteered to serve dinner "to meet new people and give something back." (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Alvaro Pereira, a student at Berkeley Law, said he volunteered to serve dinner “to meet new people and give something back.” (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Hotel Durant, a longstanding partner of Rec Sports, “was extremely excited to support this cause, and some of our local partners made donations to ensure that this event was a tremendous success,” said Dell Dellinger, regional managing director of Gemstone Hotels and Resorts, which acquired the hotel in 2013. “It is very humbling to witness these types of localized community responses.”

At Rec Sports, the idea for the Thanksgiving dinner came from “our passion and belief that Rec Sports is more than a gym, we’re a community. We encourage everyone to make a difference in the lives of others,” said Watz, who worked with Hotel Durant and Henry’s to develop the event.

Gratitude cards at Tuesday's dinner invited guests and volunteers alike to make a difference in others' lives. (Photo courtesy of Rec Sports)

Gratitude cards at Tuesday’s dinner invited guests and volunteers alike to make a difference in others’ lives. (Photo courtesy of Rec Sports)

The Thanksgiving meal for Berkeley students is part of a larger, campus-wide 30 Days of Gratitude campaign that was designed and delivered by Rec Sports. As part of Tuesday’s event, guests were invited to complete the sentence “I’m grateful for ________” using a gratitude card provided by Rec Sports. They were encouraged to share their responses through their social networks using #30CalGratitudeDinner2016.

The Humans of Rec Sports – Gratitude Series that features daily profiles of Berkeley students, faculty and staff sharing what they are grateful for launched the 30 Days of Gratitude campaign on Nov. 7. New stories will be published through Dec. 6, and the campaign can be followed on the Cal Rec Sports Facebook page  and Instagram accounts.

More Thanksgiving bounty was shared with Berkeley students on Nov. 17 by representatives of the UC Police Officers Association, who delivered frozen turkeys, boxes of produce and $30 gift cards to 60 families living at University Village in Albany. The community service initiative was also sponsored by Cal Dining and University Village management.

On Thanksgiving Day, the Café 3 campus dining hall will serve meals from 3-5 p.m. Cal Dining has posted holiday hours on its website.

Brittany Hosea-Small contributed to this report.