A Saturday evening might not be the typical time for South Medford High School's cafeteria to be particularly lively, but this weekend was an exception.
The steam rising from hot plates of food, bilingual greetings between old and new friends and photos with Santa all marked the culmination of an annual partnership between the Northwest Seasonal Workers Association and student leadership at South Medford: a holiday meal prepared and served by the students to thank workers for their often-unseen contributions to the community.
"It means a lot to celebrate stuff that isn't celebrated as much as it should be," senior Becca Newell said.
This was her third time working the dinner. She said that while before she worked mostly in the arts section helping kids make holiday-themed crafts, she wanted to experience every aspect of the event in her final year. After helping prep food all day, her time at the dinner was mostly spent serving guests steaming tamales at the end of the food-service line.
The NSWA organized this celebratory dinner for its members on its own for several years until Dennis Murphy, then the athletic director for South Medford, and then-volleyball coach Jerry Hagstrom proposed that their leadership students co-organize the effort. Hector Santiago, who now teaches the leadership class, said that while Murphy and Hagstrom tried unsuccessfully to hold their own event before approaching the NSWA, a few years into that relationship, South Medford took over hosting the dinner in its cafeteria.
"Now it’s been on our plate to serve it here," Santiago said. "It's almost like divine intervention and that’s how the relationship started."
NWSA leadership now help primarily by spreading the word among members to attend with their families and friends. The organization is staffed entirely by volunteers and its structure is loose — it is not a 501 (c) (3) and information can be tough to find online — so Operations Manager Alec Lamoreaux said the event both helps get the word out and frees the association members up to pursue other activities.
Lamoreaux said the work of NSWA volunteers are its most important asset and those involved extend beyond seasonal workers.
"Anyone who wants to be part of improving (workers') economic situation can sign up," he said.
Donations also played an important role in making this night possible. Santiago estimated around 95 percent of the food came from donations procured by the leadership students themselves, of which there are about 65 to 70, he said. Some are elected student body representatives, while others participate in a selective leadership class the Santiago leads in coordination with activities director Kalin Cross.
Several of the students arrived before 7 a.m. that day to begin the meal prep in the culinary arts kitchen: peeling mounds of potatoes due to be mashed a few hours later and carefully cooking 10 donated turkeys throughout the day.
Chloe Miller, a junior, was assistant coordinator for the dinner. Beyond learning how to plan for an event of this scale, she said that she also discovered deeper connections with her classmates.
"I've learned what like-minded people can do," she said. "It's really cool to be around people who have the same mindset and willingness to help people and better South."
Besides the meal, students also ran the craft station, cleaned up after the event and took leftovers to various charities, such as Hearts With a Mission and ACCESS. Children attendees also got to whack at an ice-cream-shaped piñata, scrambling to the floor after Lamoreaux delivered a final hit that sent the spoils showering down.
Some of the NSWA members have come to the dinner for years. Nelida Arroyo, a student at Eagle Point High School, said it has provided an opportunity to see extended family in the area.
"You're welcome to invite whoever," she said. "So you get to see people you haven't seen in a while, or meet new people."
There are also those like Maria Miranda, who came for the first time with her friend, a longtime NSWA member. Miranda said she wanted to come to connect with more Latino families in the area and she would like to return if the opportunity comes.
"The students are doing a noble thing," she said, speaking in Spanish.
Overall, the impression seems to be one of mutual gratitude, as Newell said she's learned. Despite the hours of work, she doesn't seem to see the event as a grand gesture, but simply the right thing to do.
"Seeing how thankful they are gives me a bigger perspective on how the little things can mean a whole lot to people," she said.