78th Annual Joe Salem Thanksgiving Dinner Continues as Drive-By

by JANE KATHLEEN GREGORIO

For nearly eight decades, the Joe Salem Thanksgiving Dinner has brought Corpus Christi residents to share a free hot turkey meal together, and this year is no exception. The annual community-wide event will continue this November as a drive-by pick up to observe health and safety protocols.  

“We are able to continue Mr. Salem’s tradition of  providing a turkey dinner that feeds about 500 people every Thanksgiving Day with the help of volunteers and  sponsorship from companies like US Ecology and Autonation Cadillac, who are on board again to assist this year’s event,” said  Lisa Saenz-Luevanos, Event Coordinator. 

The event was originally founded by businessman, philanthropist,  retired military veteran, jeweller, and former Texas State Representative Joseph John “Joe” Salem, who also bore the nickname the “Mayor of Peoples Street.”

According to Saenz-Luevanos, Salem grew up as the son of a grocery store owner and was always concerned for the poor.  

“He hated to see anyone go hungry and as a young boy,  would take steaks from his father’s grocery store, have them cooked at the local Success Cafe and would round up all the young and poor neighborhood children to eat a steak dinner,” Saenz-Luevanos said. 

Salem then began funding a free turkey dinner for underprivileged kids in the 1940’s at the Boys and Girls Club, which later became a city-wide Corpus Christi Thanksgiving tradition open to the public.

Saenz-Luevanos began helping with the event in 1993 and took over the reins as Event Coordinator in 1998.

“At first I was nervous as I had big shoes to fill, but I was thankful to have had the opportunity to work alongside with Mr. Salem when he was overseeing the event,” Saenz-Luevanos said. 

“Mr. Salem was so organized and  precise,  and it was so touching to see the joy and emotion in his eyes as watched people gathered together, happily  enjoying their meals. It felt very memorable to work with him  before he passed away in April 2001.”  

In 2016 the Joe Salem Thanksgiving Dinner was relocated from the Boys and Girls Club on Greenwood to the Sokol Gym on Kostoryz. 

“We weren’t sure if the change in location would lead to less attendees that year, but were surprised at how jam-packed the venue was to the point that we even ran out of food,” Saenz-Luevanos said. 

With the challenges of Covid-19 restricting public occupancy in 2020, Saenz-Luevanos had to think of a new way to continue the tradition. Thanks to her time volunteering at the Food Bank during its Covid-19 emergency food distribution, she got the idea for conducting the dinner via drive-by pick up. 

“On Thanksgiving Day 2020 we were able to distribute 500 meals, packed in to-go containers via drive-through at Sokol Gym parking lot, and all the food was gone within 30 minutes,” she said.

“Before he passed, I made a promise to Mr. Salem to keep his Thanksgiving Dinner going  which aims to provide a meal for anyone, whether it’s an older person not capable of cooking large meals anymore, a college student far from family, or new arrivals to Corpus Christi who don’t know anyone, everyone is welcome and we honor Mr. Salem’s legacy of giving through this event.” 

The 78th annual Joe Salem Thanksgiving Dinner distribution will be held at Sokol Gym, 5502 Kostoryz Road on Thursday, November 25 starting at noon until supplies run out. For information on volunteering call Raquel at (361) 739-8706 or Elaine at (361)-331-2006.

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