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Eastern serves turkey and trimmings to 300 community members

Published on November 23, 2022

Eastern serves turkey and trimmings to 300 community members

16th Day of Giving returns to campus

Eastern student, faculty and staff volunteers

Day of Giving volunteers serve food to guests in Hurley Hall.

A student volunteers at the Day of Giving.

Eastern Connecticut State University’s 16th annual Day of Giving on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving was the only turkey dinner that many participants would have this holiday.

“I’m very grateful for the meal — people put their heart into it,” said Porsia, a St. Louis native who moved to Willimantic in 2007 and came with a busload of elderly housing residents.

More than 300 full turkey dinners were prepared by Chartwells, Eastern’s food service provider, and served by Eastern student, faculty and staff volunteers on Nov. 23 in Hurley Hall. The ECSU Foundation donated the turkeys and Eastern’s Center for Community Engagement (CCE) orchestrated the event, coordinating volunteers and partnering with community organizations. Shuttle buses worked in two shifts to bring people to the meal from Covenant Soup Kitchen, the Willimantic Senior Center and elder housing.

Happy guests enjoy their meal in Hurley Hall.

The on-campus event was interrupted by Covid for two years, when Chartwells prepared to-go meals and sent them to Covenant Soup Kitchen and senior housing in Willimantic. But this year’s attendees said they were glad to be back for a sit-down meal, complete with pumpkin pie. “Succulent,” was how one guest from Lighthouse, a United Services program, described the meal, just as he remembered it from the past.

Kate McCarthy-Cox, program coordinator at the Windham Senior Center, which sent a busload to the dinner, said that “Everyone was so sad the last couple of years” when a sit-down meal wasn’t possible.

“For a lot of people, with no family, this is their Thanksgiving meal,” she said.

Day of Giving volunteer
A student volunteers at the Day of Giving.

Joseph Anton Clark, who recently moved back to Willimantic after 40 years working in California, said he was homeless until recently, although he has family in the area. Another guest, who came with a group from Covenant Soup Kitchen, said she came because she had used up all her food money for the month.

Many of the people who came have no family members or social network to share Thanksgiving with, said Arka Mikel, resident service coordinator for the Willimantic Housing Authority. He encourages people to come, because “this is really the best dinner in town.”

“It’s always a great experience, assisting other people in the community,” said student volunteer Issa Ayala ’24, who is a student leader with the CCE. She volunteers in three different programs a week in Willimantic, but this was her first time working at the Day of Giving.

“It’s just a good feeling you get from making a little difference in the community,” she said.

Olivia Gardner ’25, another student leader with the CCE, said it was “just so fun to see people I know” at the Day of Giving. Through the CCE, she volunteers with several programs in Willimantic, serving those with addictions, the elderly and children, and she recognized some of the diners as people that she works with. “It’s a connection you make with the community,” she said.

Chartwells began preparing for the meal the day before, but the 500 pounds of turkey didn’t go into the oven until 6 a.m. on Wednesday. The food service also prepared 150 pounds of mashed potatoes, 100 pounds of green beans, 600 dinner rolls and more than 550 slices of pie, said Joe Salvaggio, general manager for Chartwells.

CCE's Lexie and Lana
CCE Special Events Coordinator Lexie Mastroianni (left) and CCE Associate Director Lana O'Connor

“I reached out to my staff to volunteer,” he said. Among his staff volunteers were workers he employs from Camp Horizons, a program in Willimantic for people with developmental disabilities. Eastern staff also volunteered to prep the meal. Vendors such as Sardilli’s Produce in Hartford donated food.

It was the first Day of Giving for Lana O’Connor in her new role as associate director for the CCE. The day is “our big, big holiday volunteer event,” she said. The center provided 25 student volunteers, along with staff, to wait on tables and manager the incoming stream of diners.

Volunteer staffer Sonia Alicea, an administrative assistant in housing for 22 years, said the Day of Giving has “definitely gotten more and more interest” since it was started in 2007 by student Jason Budahazy ’09, a sport and leisure management major.

Thanksgiving dinner and clean-up may overwhelm some cooks, but Chartwells’ Salvaggio had this one under control, after many years of experience. The second sitting ended at 1:45 p.m.  “Fingers crossed, we’ll be out of here by 2:30 p.m.” he said while watching the line of diners pick up trays.

Written by Lucinda Weiss