Kenneth Michael Roberts/Courtesy photoJerry Vervarka, right, joins other volunteers in preparing the Christmas Community dinner a few years back.
The kitchen at First Presbyterian was humming on Christmas Day as teams of volunteers worked together to fill orders for community dinners, no questions asked. The rich aromas of turkey, ham, dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes, veggies, fresh rolls, and homemade cranberry sauce and pumpkin pies wafted over the scene, as did Jerry’s spirit.
By the end of a hectic three hours, the volunteers were scraping together meals for last-minute requests and by counting up the order slips it was figured that 292 meals went out. Jerry would have been happy to know that neither Covid, logistics, or the threat of snow kept this meal from happening.
As the news of Vaverka’s passing spread through the town this past November, it caused waves of shock and dismay. He had touched lives in so many ways that the testimonies and prayers for his family came pouring in from community members from every corner of the Grove. One constant in the many forms of community service that Jerry mustered in his life was the presence of well-prepared, tasty food. Vaverka used his culinary skills to aid many causes, knowing if you have food, people will come.
His legendary seafood chowder was sought out and the first to go at the Community Sharing Souper Fundraiser each year. He was to be found stirring the pot at the American Legion Spaghetti Feed, or tending the hotdogs at the Bingo nights there as well. He conceived the idea of the Chuck Wagon Miner’s dinner and breakfasts served in Coiner Park during the Bohemia Mining Days events. He would bankroll the food purchases, set up his field kitchen, prepare and serve the food, then using his banking skills, learned from years of being a loan officer, figured out the profits down to the penny, which Vaverka then donated to the BMD organization. He also lent a hand to support the Breakfast on the Mountain, in addition to serving long tenures as a member of both the BMD Board of Directors and the Bohemia Heritage BOD, He was also active in the Bohemia Sunrisers Kiwanis.
Another facet of his character that guided and facilitated his avenues of service was his devotion to his faith and church, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church. He was an active member both in the congregation and with the Knights of Columbus. Serving as the facilities director, Vaverka guided the reconstruction of the Parrish Center after fire damaged it. Vaverka aided many community organizations in using the Parrish Center for their events. Bob McArthur remarked how helpful Jerry had been in assisting the CG Rotary Club in its fundraising to support community projects through their annual auctions held at the Parrish Center.
As a loving family man, Vaverka was hands-on in supporting his daughter’s school and sports activities. Serving as a coach for basketball and track, he also was drawn to the Special Olympics to allow daughter Jill, born with Down’s Syndrome, to shine.
Daughter April Montoya Vaverka, while in high school, came up with the idea of providing a community dinner on Christmas Day to serve anyone who may be alone or wanted to join fellow community members. With typical can-do energy Vaverka and the whole family threw themselves into the plan, which has become a tradition many have benefited from over nearly three decades. April, the originator of the meal, would fly in from her home in Georgia to roll up her sleeves and help continue the tradition. There was no question where to hold the dinner, the OLPH Parish Center, where so many other organization’s events, like the Habitat for Humanity’s Crab Feed, were aided by Vaverka’s kitchen skills and support in their fundraising efforts.
Duane Taddei began volunteering with the meal in 2016 after talking to Jerry one night at American Legion Bingo. Showing up on the day of the meal with his family to help, they were immediately brought up to speed by the chief cook and bottle washer himself. “Jerry made it very clear that this meal was not a soup kitchen to aid the needy. It was a true community dinner. All volunteers were instructed to greet each person that showed up with ‘Merry Christmas,’ and to treat them as honored guests. Conversation between strangers and old friends alike naturally occurred and that was part of the Vaverka family vision for this meal. My crew really enjoyed helping out with the event and we made it our Christmas tradition each year following. … In 2019 Jerry invited me to participate in the three-day preparation for the whole event. He taught me so much, from using a mandolin to preparing the potatoes to cook evenly for their eventual mashing while keeping all their nutrients, how to prepare the turkey meat for serving and carefully layering in the roaster prior to the event, down to washing the warming pans at the end, progressively using the water and over the stove which was cleaned last.”
In 2020, Covid disrupted the tradition. An effort by many concerned community members helped pull together a drive-thru pickup Christmas dinner, but the key element of sitting down together was missing.
This year, with the blessing of the Vaverka family, Taddei, Karen Munsell, and Soup’s On Karen Burrece, along with a number of volunteers planned to do another take-out version. Jerry’s presence hovered over all of the efforts. Taddei and Munsell offered thanks to all who contributed time, product, money, and freezer space.
We pause to remember those we’ve lost in 2021. Besides Jerry a few who come to mind are Thomas Alan “Tom” Wheeler, longtime director of SLMH; Karen T, Winters upholder of the Hoyer family tradition and a trailblazer in the CG Rotary Club; and one of the more unique local sons, Charles Wilbur Heath.
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