La PORTE — For the past 15 years, members of the Sales family have followed the same routine every Thanksgiving.
Waking up well before the sun rises, the family gathers inside the kitchen of the La Porte American Legion and gets to work. While listening to some Christmas tunes, they fire up the ovens, chop up the potatoes and veggies and prepare the turkeys for roasting, all before their dinner guests arrive.
Several hundred dinner guests, to be more precise.
The Sales family and friends will host its 16th annual William D. Sales and James Mills Thanksgiving Dinner from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday at American Legion Hamon Gray Post 83, located at 228 E. Lincoln Way, La Porte. The community is invited to the free buffet-style dinner, which will feature turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, yams, desserts and other Thanksgiving favorites.
La Porte's Leonard Sales, a member of the local American Legion, came up with the idea of hosting a free Thanksgiving Day dinner for the community at the post in 2004, several weeks before the holiday, he said. With little time to waste, he ran the idea by his brothers, Bill and Dan, who agreed to pitch in, recruiting the rest of the Sales clan for the effort.
Paying for most of the expenses out of pocket, the family made enough food for 300 people — though only around 50 guests showed up to eat, Leonard said.
The dinner would grow in size in the ensuing years, however, with the family welcoming nearly 400 people following the economic downtown in 2009. So many guests showed up that the hosts had to buy some chicken at Al's to feed everyone, Dan said.
"It was a little chaotic the first couple of years, but now we got it down to a science," Leonard said.
The brothers named the dinner in honor of their father, William Sales, who died in 1993.
The family patriarch was always one to put the needs of others above his own, Leonard said. For example, though he could rarely afford to fill his truck's gas tank past a quarter full, William would always have a gallon of fuel in his trunk in case he ran into any drivers who had run out, he said.
"Dad didn't have a whole lot, but what he did have he was always willing to give away," Leonard said.
Through the annual dinner, the family can continue William's legacy of giving — and pass it along to the Sales clan's next generation, they said.
Leonard's daughter, Krystyna Watson, has helped with the event since its inception, she said. Now, her children pitch in with the effort as well, she said.
"Whenever I think of Thanksgiving, I think of the American Legion," said Chris Sales, another of Leonard's children.
Despite the amount of work they pour into preparing the meal — "a 24-hour whirlwind," as Dan describes it — the Sales family always looks forward to the dinner, they said. With members living throughout La Porte County and beyond, the meal gives everyone a reason to gather and spend a day working, laughing and sharing stores, said Mary Bugg, one of Leonard and Dan's sisters.
"It's a family day, in all senses of the word," she said.
Ultimately, though, the dinner is all about giving back to the La Porte community, especially those suffering from financial hardship or the recent loss of a loved one.
"When you know someone doesn't have anything and you see the smile on their face, it just gets you," Leonard said.
The dinner isn't just open to the needy, though, the family said. Many guests attend the feast every year to enjoy some company and conversation with people they have never met before.
Though the family once funded the event themselves during the initial years, today, local businesses like Al's Supermarkets and I Street Meats, along with contributions from guests, donate to the effort, the family said. Art students at Prairie View Elementary School also help out with the event, creating the placemats that sit on the hall's dining tables.
"I can't tell you how many grandmas have seen them and said, 'These are the cutest things I've ever seen,'" Leonard said.
With plenty of food, fun and fellowship on the menu Thursday, the Sales family is encouraging anyone and everyone to stop by the American Legion and enjoy the festivities.
"Bring your family and become part of our family," Watson said.