Dinner guests: Scarborough volunteers are cooking the town’s first free Thanksgiving meal

Focusing on the concepts of what creates community, several organizations in Scarborough are coming together for the first time to offer a free Thanksgiving dinner for all.

The Community Thanksgiving Dinner will be held on Thursday, Nov. 24, from 11 a.m.-1 p.m., at the Wentworth School. The organizers are promising a quality meal, featuring china tableware, linen tablecloths, centerpieces created by members of the Scarborough Garden Club and dinner music.

The notion of holding a community Thanksgiving event evolved from a discussion, called Food for Thought & Action, which was organized and sponsored by Project GRACE and held in late September at the Scarborough Public Library.

During this event, which drew about 30 members of the community to talk about hunger and what could be done about it, Kelly Murphy, a member of the Board of Education, first floated the idea of holding a Thanksgiving dinner with the goal of bringing together a full cross-section of Scarborough residents.

Peter Esposito, the nutrition program director at the school department, jumped on board and the idea snowballed, with the town’s Community Services Department, Project GRACE and other civic organizations and individuals enthusiastically joining in, according to Julie Kukenberger, the superintendent of schools.

“In my experience, only good things can come from getting to know more people in the community,” Murphy said this week. “Scarborough is a wonderful place to live and work, but it can be difficult to get to know your neighbors. Our lives are busy and our house lots are far apart. I hope people come (to the dinner) because they want to be there.”

Her hope is “to create a place for anyone to come together with friends, family and neighbors to enjoy dinner free from the stresses that can come from cooking a traditional Thanksgiving meal.”

Murphy hosted a family Thanksgiving two years ago and found that it was “a lot of work,” which was made worse when a snowstorm hit the day before the holiday and “we were without power for 18 hours. Our power was restored (only) 20 minutes before 20 guests arrived for dinner.”

“I was thankful for our generator that day,” she said, “but remember wondering what we would have done without it. I started thinking about all the people that may not be interested in cooking a big meal for just themselves or a small family.”

She also thought about those who may have spent Thanksgiving apart from their families and friends because of distance, work schedules, health challenges or the cost of airfare. That’s when Murphy began considering how a community Thanksgiving meal could be held.

“The response from our community has been tremendous. We have dozens of volunteers planning to help set up, serve and clean up,” Murphy said. “Many people have committed to bake pies, as well. We are also very fortunate to have many generous donations from local businesses and individuals that will help defray the costs associated with the event.”

Overall, she wants “people to walk away happy and full,” adding, “I really want people to know that we hope anyone and everyone will join us.”

There are still plenty of seats available, and organizers are anticipating serving between 200 and 400 meals. Making a reservation would be helpful, the organizers said, but walk-ins are also more than welcome.

“The community response has been overwhelming and we (already) have more volunteers than we had hoped for,” Esposito said.

What he hopes attendees experience from this first community Thanksgiving meal is “a sense of belonging to a (town) that cares.”

Kukenberger was more than happy to back the idea for a community Thanksgiving event because “I support any opportunity to bring our community together.”

She plans to volunteer and “contribute as much as possible in an effort to ensure that this event is successful. I would love to see this become an annual tradition. I (also) hope that we gain a stronger sense of community and commitment to one another” from eating together.

“Additionally I hope that our community gains a deeper awareness of the current food (insecurity) issues in Scarborough and the state of Maine. (Access to) high quality, healthy food is critical. As the superintendent of schools, I believe that hungry kids cannot learn. Nutrition is an important factor in healthy physical, emotional and cognitive development, (and) I hope that together we can reduce and eventually eliminate the stigma often associated with needing support” to meet basic needs, Kukenberger said.

A closer look

A Community Thanksgiving Dinner will be held on Thursday, Nov. 24, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., at the Wentworth School in Scarborough. The event is free and open to the public and rides are being offered by the town’s Community Services Department. Call 730-4171 to RSVP, although walk-ins are also welcome.

Volunteers are needed to help set up on both Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 23 and 24, to help serve on Thursday, and then to help clean up.

Organizers are also looking for those willing to bake pies. A total of 50 homemade pies – 25 apple and 25 pumpkin – will be needed. Pies should be brought to Wentworth School between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Wednesday. All those donating a pie should use a disposable pan.

Go to www.thanksgivingscarborough.weebly.com to sign up to volunteer or for more information. Donations are also being accepted to cover the cost of the dinner. All donations should be sent to Project GRACE at P.O. Box 6846, Scarborough, Maine, 04070, or made online at www.projectgracemaine.weebly.com. Project GRACE (Granting Resources and Assistance through Community Effort) is an organized volunteer effort that provides needed help to local residents.

Organizations and individuals in Scarborough are coming together to put on a community Thanksgiving meal with all the fixings.