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‘Safe And Fed’

Local Organizations Prep For Thanksgiving, Holidays

A Salvation Army volunteer helps pack a bag of food for those in need at the organization’s South Main Street food pantry ahead of the holiday season on Tuesday. P-J photos by Cameron Hurst

As Thanksgiving and the holiday season arrive amid the first global pandemic in a century, local service leaders are preparing to continue helping those in need as safely as possible.

Originally intending to host guests in their dining room at 50% capacity, Bonny Scott-Sleight, St. Susan Center executive director, said that rising COVID-19 infections locally caused her organization to close their dining room and resume serving meals from a to-go window at its 31 Water St. location.

“We’re now providing hot meals to go,” she said, noting that Thanksgiving dinners will be available to-go on Thursday.

“Our front window open and we’ll continue to do that on Thanksgiving Day from 12:30 to 2,” she said. “Anyone who is in need of a meal can come down to the window and we’ll make sure they have a hot dinner to go.”

Scott-Sleight said the organization has provided 165 turkeys with bags of side dishes so far this year.

“We had a waiting list,” she said. “Different case workers in town are still referring customers to us and we will continue to offer them that turkey meal to-go if we can’t give them the turkey and the trimmings. But we’re still good for about 15 to 20 turkeys that we could give if we need to.”

Because her organization distributes the makings for the meal ahead of time, it typically does not see as many guests on Thanksgiving Day.

“We usually get 100 to 110,” she said. “We aren’t sure how it will be this year because we aren’t having dinner inside or if they will come at all or if some who already have gotten meals will still come to get the hot meal to go. We have said to everyone that we are fine with that if they plan to make the turkey dinner at another time and come on the day of Thanksgiving as well.”

Though Christmas remains its flagship holiday and while it does not provide specific meal availabilities on Thanksgiving, the local Salvation Army has continued to see a steady volume of those in need visit its food pantry, Major John Merchant said.

“We still are getting a high monthly volume,” he said. “Right now, we usually have between 1,000 to 1,200 visit the pantry each month. We’ll help make sure people know about St. Susan’s on Thanksgiving, but we will take care of those who don’t have any place else to go and we’ll make sure to lend a hand wherever is needed.”

The generosity of the community has helped them be able to do that — several members of the community have donated turkeys.

“We have good friends who not only give us monetary donations, but food donations,” he said. “So when people are thinking about going out to the shopping store, if they already have their turkey, they’ve been kind enough to get another turkey for others. Our community has been gracious in helping us to take care of our community needs.”

Still, with Christmas on the horizon, Merchant did say that they have had “quite a few people” sign up for the social services program the organization offers during the Christmas season, but that they have had a difficult time raising the money needed through its annual Red Kettle campaign.

“With COVID,there are special regulations,” he said. “The kettle workers have to stand by themselves this year. They can’t have their spouse or grandchildren and so a lot of people opting out. We’re also only able to do three of the eight stores we usually have available and half of those that are volunteering are paid workers.”

He said that the organization is looking to raise $150,000.

“That not only takes care of the pantry, but the utility bills,” he said. “It takes care a little bit of everything and without that I’m not sure what we would do. We would have to cut back on services. … We only have $3,600 raised so far this year and we’re finding that we can only man a few of our kettles each day and that’s with my wife and I taking care of a few of them.”

Still, Merchant is grateful for the team of volunteers who have helped keep the pantry running since the pandemic began.

“We have steady volunteers,” he said. “We actually have 10 volunteers who have stayed with us through COVID and what’s really amazing is that six of them are 80-plus years old. You wouldn’t know that by looking at them because they are full of life and they don’t want to do anything but help. … They’ve been very faithful in making sure that the community’s needs are taken care of.”

Scott-Sleight, meanwhile, said that while volunteer numbers are down, she has been amazed at how many have continued to serve throughout the pandemic and the holiday season.

“It’s not as large as it has been in past years, just because sometimes the flow of the volunteers that come during the week of Thanksgiving is pretty large,” she said. “But, because we’re doing everything in house, we do have the volunteers we need right now for Thanksgiving Day and the day after which will be a large prep day for us because we have two meals on Saturday due to the fact we’re not open on Sunday.”

She added, “We’ll be able to manage just fine. We have some really dedicated staff here that really look forward to being a part of Thanksgiving as well as those who have that day off.”

And, as the days ahead lie uncertain, she is confident in her organization’s ability to be there for those who need it.

“Even though our dining room is closed, we are still trying hard to respond to the needs of the hungry,” she said. “We will do whatever we need to do so that we can continue to serve under unprecedented times of COVID. None of us know what the outcome can be. We’re working together to keep everyone safe and fed.”

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