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YANKTON, S.D. (AP) — After more than 20 years of service to the Yankton community, the Yankton Area Banquet is still going strong on its mission to provide food and fellowship to those in need.

Starting as an offshoot of the Sioux Falls Banquet in 1997, the Yankton Area Banquet has become a weekly staple in the lives of many of Yankton’s residents.

“The idea for the Banquet started in Sioux Falls,” said Dagmar Hoxsie, founding member of the Yankton Area Banquet. “At the Sioux Falls Banquet, they fed the hungry and the needy every night. They would have volunteer groups from all over the state promise to cook and serve the meals on different nights.”

Sacred Heart Church of Yankton used to bring its confirmation students and serve at the banquet one night every year, and that was how Hoxsie first became familiar with the idea.

“I was astounded when I first went to the banquet,” Hoxsie told the Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan . “I went through a war as a little girl and I went hungry. I think hunger is a scandal and nobody should have to go through that. That’s why I thought the banquet was such a wonderful idea.”

The director of the Sioux Falls Banquet at that time was Carolyn Downs. She was the first to ask the members from the Sacred Heart Church if they would like to start their own banquet in Yankton. The Sioux Falls Banquet had grown large enough at the time and had enough volunteer groups to get the Yankton Area Banquet started.

The group quickly decided to undertake the task by setting out to find an appropriate location to host their fellowship project.

“We had to find a building that would be accessible for everyone,” Hoxsie said. “We didn’t have any luck right away. We tried all over town, but nothing worked.”

It wasn’t until Pastor Marilyn Stone of the United Church of Christ made a proposal to her congregation that they should allow the banquet to use their facilities, that the group found a home. Approved for a one-year lease of Pilgrim’s Hall at the UCC church, the group hosted its first banquet on Aug. 28, 1997.

“We cooked for 70 people that night, but we had 140 people show up,” Hoxsie said. “We never ran out of food though. That was our confirmation to show that a higher power was with us and guiding us along the way.”

The next move for the group was to hire a director for the banquet. While it wasn’t immediately clear who would fill that position, Janice Cass, a woman with prior banquet experience from Pierre, arrived at approximately the right time to fill the groups need and accepted the position.

“We’ve always had everything come to us exactly when we needed it,” Hoxsie said. “Whether it was plates, cups, silverware or help, we’ve always been looked over and provided for.”

The same method would hold true when Cass fell ill and needed to step down from her position as director of the banquet.

“We were stuck wondering what we were going to do for about two weeks,” Hoxsie said. “That was when Bruce and Carol (Myers) appeared and started helping us.”

After being asked to step into roles as directors of the banquet, the Myers quickly took advantage of the opportunity and found the process of helping people to be quite beneficial to their own needs.

“Five years ago, we lost our daughter in a car accident,” Bruce Myers said. “She was always helping people because it was important to her. It was about the Fourth of July when we decided that we needed to do something to help people and we joined the banquet. Through our work at the banquet, we’ve sort of found our purpose again. It has really helped us along our journey.”

For the Myers, Hoxsie and many others, the banquet is about a lot more than just providing meals to those in need of sustenance. It is also about providing a place of fellowship and healing that can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone in Yankton. The effects of the good deeds done at the banquet often ripple out in the farthest corners of the community, they said.

“When we are given the opportunity to serve our guests, they are also often looking out for other members of the community as well,” Carol Myers said. “They often bring some of the food and fellowship felt here to other people who can’t make it to the banquet. What we do at the banquet spreads far out in to the community.”

The Yankton Area Banquet doesn’t just offer a free meal every Thursday night and every first and third Tuesday of the month. It also offers programs that can help children purchase school supplies or get enrolled in summer recreation programs.

“When people are suffering from hunger, a lot of other things get cut out,” Carol said. “We want to offer every kid the same opportunity to be involved with school and summer recreation programs.”

The banquet pays for such programs through the use of donations that are allocated by the Yankton Area Banquet’s board of directors.

“Families are really grateful and it feels good to see the smiles on the kid’s faces,” said Bruce.

On average, the group provides around 250 meals every night they host a banquet. It takes approximately 77 volunteer groups of around 20-25 people to serve the meals annually. While the organization does have a core group of volunteers, it is the outside groups that volunteer and help serve at the banquet that make up the backbone of the banquet’s efforts.

“The banquet has become an institution in Yankton,” Hoxsie said.

Through its work, the Yankton Area Banquet is doing its part to promote healing within the community of Yankton. While the group’s main focus is on feeding those in need, it also focuses on offering a place for people to make human connections and grow in their own service to each other.

“As long as there is a need, we will keep going,” Hoxsie said. “We were called to watch over those people on the margins of society. We may help someone through our efforts, but they are also helping us too.”

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Information from: Yankton Press and Dakotan, http://www.yankton.net/