CLINTON – Victory Center Ministries expected between 800 and 1,000 people to take advantage of its free Thanksgiving banquet at Clinton High School on Wednesday night.

“I’ve been working all day long, and running with this wind,” Executive Director Ray Gimenez said Wednesday afternoon.

The Center continued to look for cash donations to reach its goal of $5,000 to feed everyone who wanted a meal.

“It isn’t just the Victory Center. It’s a community event,” Gimenez said. “Everything is free.”

Because the local Hy-Vee, Jewel-Osco and Walmart stores donate food items and volunteers and Victory Center residents prepare and serve it, each meal costs the organization only $2.50 to serve.

“We had it at the Ashford University when Ashford was here,” Gimenez said, but since the college closed its Clinton campus, the Clinton School District has met the need.

The district allows the Victory Center to use its facility at no cost, Gimenez said. “The tables, the chairs, the sound equipment, the refrigeration. They have gone above and beyond.”

At least 150 volunteers worked to serve anyone in the community who wanted a meal, Gimenez said.

Members of the Clinton Leo club, a youth organization of Lions Clubs International, served and cleaned up for a third consecutive year. Emma Folland, who directs the Leos, said she had about 60 Leos volunteering Wednesday night.

Among them were Logan Spooner and Destiny Carter, a pair of sixth-graders who wandered the room with pitchers of lemonade, looking for cups to refill.

“This is probably one of our favorite service projects,” Folland said while watching students carry trays of food around the crowded, noisy gym.

Folland’s own children were helping the Leos, she said, learning that the holidays aren’t about material things but about service, community and supporting one another.

“This is the heart of Clinton,” Folland said.

School dismissed Tuesday afternoon for the holiday and doesn’t resume until Monday.

“I just think it’s incredible. This is their day off,” Folland said. The students could have chosen to be anywhere, and they chose to spend four hours waiting tables and cleaning up after people.

Music accompanied the dinner, and the Victory Center awarded door prizes. Three-year-old Malachi Rekenthaler won a bicycle. His father, Tim, said he attended the community Thanksgiving dinner because he had family members there. “I come to support the Victory Center.”

Like other children at the dinner, Malachi and his sister Eryn Rekenthaler, enjoy the activities, such as laser tag from Impact Tactical Laser Tag, that follow the meal, Tim said.

Victory Center Ministries has been providing food, temporary shelter, employment assistance, and counseling in the Clinton community since 1987.