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17th annual Day of Giving provides a festive meal for 400

Published on November 27, 2023

17th annual Day of Giving provides a festive meal for 400

CCE volunteers and diners

Volunteers before the serving line

Staff and faculty servers, from left, Michael Stenko, Emily Todd, Janice Wilson and Elizabeth Cowles

Hurley Hall dining room was the scene of the dinner.

More than 400 Willimantic residents replaced the usual lunch crowd of Eastern students in the Hurley Hall dining room the day before Thanksgiving . Community members and patrons of local senior centers and social service organizations feasted on turkey and trimmings at Eastern’s 17th annual Day of Giving.

Some visitors were first-timers. Others told servers they had come to the dinner every year.

Why do they come? “The food,” said one enthusiastic senior in the serving line, a repeat customer.

And plenty of food was waiting for him — 500 pounds of turkey, five gallons of gravy, 200 pounds of mashed potatoes, 110 pounds of stuffing, 80 pounds of green beans and 42 pounds of cranberry sauce, all prepared by Eastern Eats/Chartwell, Eastern’s food service provider.

“It’s a tried-and-true formula,” said Austin Stinson, marketing manager for Eastern Eats, which donated the food. Ten crew members volunteered to prepare the meal, along with the entire Eastern Eats management team, he said.

Produce was donated by Sardilli Produce & Dairy Co. of Hartford and the baked goods — 500 dinner rolls and 500 slices of apple and pumpkin pie — were donated by Fantini Baking Co. of Haverhill, MA.

Pies were the popular desert.

Volunteers brought soda to patrons.

Plates were loaded with turkey and trimmings.

Eastern Eats's Austin Stinson

Eastern’s Center for Community Engagement (CCE), which organizes the event, provided 25 student volunteers to guide visitors through the cafeteria lines to the tables.

“It was a great experience last year and I’m happy to be back,” said volunteer Nicole Pepe, a senior. As a CCE volunteer, she also works weekly on the pen pals program at Douglas Manor in Willimantic.

Gabriella Beams, a sophomore, was volunteering for the first time at the Day of Giving. Her usual weekly volunteer work for the CCE is at Windham Elementary School, where she reads to students. She lives in Norwich but was spending her Thanksgiving break on campus this year.

Charles Anderson, a resident of John Ashton Towers, a Willimantic Housing Authority residence for the elderly and disabled, said the dinner would be his only Thanksgiving meal, since he has no family in the area. He added, “I won’t have to fix it myself!”

Shaundolyn Ortiz, a social worker and case manager with United Services in Willimantic, brought one of her clients to the meal. He had no family to share Thanksgiving with, she said. “This will be it for them,” she said of the visitors. The food, she said, was “awesome.”

One visitor heard about the meal when she went to the Covenant Soup Kitchen. She brought her four children, ages 4 to 15, and her nephew, 3.

Serving the dinner were about 20 Eastern faculty and staff members. Elizabeth Cowles, chair of the Biology Department, dished out green beans with carrots. She has volunteered at the Day of Giving for all 17 years.

Student Leslie Chavez, a junior, was a first-time volunteer, directing food lines. She is from Georgia and would not be going home for the holiday. Later, she planned to get together with friends for Thanksgiving.

Eastern Eats’s Stinson said the 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. meal was “a much more crunched time frame” than the dining hall's usual lunch service when students make up the crowd.

“It was more of a sprint than a marathon,” he said.

Written by Lucinda Weiss