A family of eight children repaid the community Thursday for helping them two years ago when their mother died.
The Plakas family — seven brothers and one sister, ranging in age from 14 to 36 — help manage Newest Lunch at 715 Albany St., Schenectady, with their uncle. On Thursday, the eight siblings, joined by the girlfriend of one of the brothers, offered free turkey meals to all who asked.
“The community has been so nice to us. We are giving back,” said Dennis Plakas, 26.
In 2006, the community organized a fundraiser for the children when their mother, Kathy Plakas, 51, lost a seven-year fight with breast cancer. She was a stay-at-home single mother who raised the children, family members said.
Newest Lunch, which opened in 1921, is better known for its hot dogs and meat sauce than for turkey meals. But on Thursday, business was brisk. “We did 30 to 40 takeouts the first hour,” said Dean Plakas, 28.
The Plakases had not opened Newest Lunch on Thanksgiving Day since taking it over in 1985. In the past, the children would have spent the day at home, enjoying a lasagna meal prepared by their mom, taking naps and watching TV, said Dean Plakas.
Two weeks ago, the children decided to open the diner Thanksgiving Day and offer free meals in memory of their mother. “What better way to show the younger ones in our family than to give back,” Dennis Plakas said.
Since their mother died, the adult Plakases have been seeking custody of their younger siblings.
Several of the older Plakases have college degrees and could be working in other fields, but they work at the diner to keep the family together, Dennis Plakas said. “We chose to be here. There is a bond and a relationship that is unique and special.”
The Plakases hope to make the free Thanksgiving Day meal a tradition. “We want to benefit the community and bring a smile to someone’s face,” Plakas said.
Smiles were in plentiful supply throughout the Capital Region on Thursday as thousands shared food, conversation, companionship and prayer at dozens of venues offering free turkey meals.
In Montgomery County, at the Amsterdam Housing Authority, Wayne Keiley, 59, was enjoying a meal prepared by the Calvary Assembly of God church. “I give myself a break from cooking today, and the people are real nice and the food is very good,” he said.
He planned to stay after his meal to socialize.
The Rev. Siegfried Ignecia said the church served more than 400 meals, an increase over past years. “This is the most we have had so far. I think it is the economy,” he said.
The church has served free Thanksgiving meals for more than 15 years. “We do this because we are very grateful to God for what he can give us. He has given us the gift of salvation,” Ignecia said.
Willie Gizara, a member of the church and a meal volunteer, enjoys helping out each year, even though it involves a lot of work. “I see an increase in the numbers but what stays the same are the fun, the love and the expressions on people’s faces,” he said.
Karen Bryant feels the same about her work with the Union Fire Co.’s annual Thanksgiving Day meal in Ballston Spa. This year, the fire company served more than 400 meals.
“I am a firm believer that if anyone wants a free meal, we will fill it,” she said.
She and her husband, Donald “Duke” Bryant, have organized the annual event for five years. “We believe we are called to do this,” she said.
The Bryants have found a similar spirit in others. “It is not difficult getting donations. I send out letters and the donations come in,” she said. It costs more than $3,500 to offer the free meal each year.
Lorie Wonilowicz worked her fourth meal this year as a volunteer, along with her sister, Valerie Borfitz of Galway. Wonilowicz is from Maryland and visits her sister for Thanksgiving.
The sisters got involved in memory of their mother. “Mom loved Thanksgiving so much,” Borfitz said. “We will do it every year. It makes us feel good and we do it to help people. There is so much need in the world and every little thing we can do to change the world helps.”