Massachusetts church drop-off Thanksgiving drive a community affair that feeds hundreds
In Burlington, Mass., it’s called the People Helping People Thanksgiving Program. Members of community come together at United Church of Christ, Congregational Church to provide the items others might need for their holiday meal.
Just ask the Cub Scouts. They brought the pies.
“Donations come from all over; we have support from many companies, organizations, churches, and individuals within our community,” said Deana Tredeau, a long-time church member and co-coordinator of the UCC Burlington food drive. The support, she notes is “both material and financial.” One local company she said as an example always donates turkey breast and squash.
A family of volunteers
There’s also a lot of volunteer support during the event the weekend before Thanksgiving. The Boy Scouts helped set up tables. The Girl Scouts made holiday napkin packets and notes with wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving.
Folks like Samantha Flecchia pitch in every year.
“I can’t even tell you when I first started doing this,” Flecchia said of her early years in church school. “I remember sitting and bagging green beans with friends, checking cans for expiration dates and helping sort and organize when everything came in after church. I just think that the whole day is so rewarding.”
Now grown and working as a nurse practioner, Flecchia makes time annually for this event. “Even though I don’t live in my home town anymore, I’m local enough that I make it a priority to come back. Each year unfortunately it seems as though there’s always more families than the last that get their Thanksgiving meal from us.”
Collection changed with COVID
As in years past, the UCC church functioned both as the food collection point and pickup location. But the process changed a bit with the pandemic.
Before COVID-19, other faith communities would take donations at Sunday worship in early November and get those to UCC Burlington. The program typically would feed 145-160 families every year. In 2020, the donation process changed to drive-through drop-off at the Burlington Food Pantry the Saturday before Thanksgiving. The next day, the pantry parking lot served as the pickup point.
“That was so hectic and crazy,” Tredeau said, noting that more than 190 families were served last year. So this time, the church tried a hybrid collection and distribution model – sticking with the drive-up food drive on Saturday at UCC Burlington, to collect non-perishables from the community “in part because church attendance hasn’t yet returned to pre-COVID crowds and to keep folks safe during the collection process.”
Clients signed up to shop at the church on Sunday, so organizers would know how many turkeys and pies and fresh produce they needed to have on hand – and to space out shoppers coming to the building to collect their food items.
Pitching in to prep
On Saturday, Nov. 20, donors dropped off deliveries of chicken broth, cornbread mix, stuffing in bags or boxes, canned corn, mayonnaise, gravy and cranberry sauce. Volunteers were at the ready to take the non-perishables directly from the cars to the sorting stations, where they counted and organized everything.
Julie Lewis, co-coordinator of the project, went to pick up produce with a few high school volunteers.
In the church auditorium, community volunteers were setting up food stations, making sure they would be ready for members of the 150 families who pre-registered for pickup or delivery.
“We also had tables in center for miscellaneous food, such as pumpkin, beans, rice, and other canned goods, which we made available on a ‘help yourself basis,’” Tredeau said. “A large group of Scouts packaged produce – green beans, carrots, potatoes, and onions with a church volunteer to guide the process.”
At 1:00 p.m., the Cub Scouts arrived with over 200 pies and a large cash contribution they collected by soliciting the shoppers at a local grocery store.
Distancing on distribution day
On Sunday, distribution day, the church took delivery of the turkeys. After worship at 2:00 p.m., volunteers opened the auditorium to clients who could go table to table to shop for their Thanksgiving groceries. The drive continued until 5:00 p.m.
“Fortunately, the weather cooperated,” Tredeau said. The church asked folks to wait outside to take their turn. “This allowed us to limit numbers in the building to ensure safe distancing inside the hall.” Clients were served by shopping assistant volunteers and Rotary members helped carry bags loaded with food to their transportation.
“This year, I stationed myself behind the fresh produce,” Flecchia said. “When people came around and did their ‘shopping,’ I made sure that the table was always full of carrots, green beans, and potatoes. We also do fresh butternut squash. It’s nice that we are always able to give away so many fresh items.
“There was a younger boy – maybe 12 – who came through with his dad. We had SO much stuffing this year. We were literally telling people all day to take all the stuffing they wanted. And this kid was just so excited about the thought of eating stuffing on a day that wasn’t Thanksgiving and it was really awesome to see that!”
Delivery drivers headed out to drop off bags packed with the fixings for a Thanksgiving feast to those 35 families who couldn’t make it to the pickup point.
Pre-registration is done by the Burlington Food Pantry. The process is overseen and supported by the parent organization People Helping People. Tredeau said both groups grew out of programs started at the church many years ago.
A total town effort
After the drive, the remaining food items were given out at the food pantry. Financial donations above what provide the dinners go to support People Helping People programs in Burlington, which include a large holiday program providing gifts for children.
“It’s a lot of fun, because it’s so rewarding,” Tredeau said. “We try to make it a total town effort. We couldn’t do it alone!”
“There’s a saying that it feels good to do good, and I think that definitely applies,” Flecchia said. “There’s definitely almost a sentimental aspect to the day since I grew up with it.
“Thanksgiving is such a special day for so many of us to spend time with family and friends, and it’s so centered around food. Not being able to afford the meal shouldn’t prohibit you from enjoying the day. I’m happy we can take that stress away from folks who already have enough on their plates.”
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