That's all it took for Hands on Hartford to fill its first 100 person seating for a free turkey dinner with all the fixings Thanksgiving Day at Christ Church Cathedral downtown. And they expected to fill the dining room again for the second seating.
"The folks that are here knew we'd be open," said Janet Bermudez, a program manager for Hands on Hartford.
Bermudez said many of the people who came for a meal Thursday are regulars at the organization's daily soup kitchen and holiday events, but estimated about a third of them to be first-time visitors.
And not all of them are homeless, either. Berumudez said a good portion of those who take advantage of the meals during the week and on holidays are retirees or working poor who are trying to stretch their paycheck just a little further to make ends meet.
Everyone has a different story," she said. "We try to provide a safe space and comfortable environment."
Bermudez, who has been with Hands on Hartford for about five years, said the number of people taking advantage of the meals has also grown over the years. A busy lunch, she said, used to be 90 people: now its 135 or more.
Bermudez said the organization also relies heavily on volunteers. On Thanksgiving she said about 50 people volunteered to prepare, cook and serve meals. She was especially grateful for the efforts of the cooks, Caroline Trudel and William Kozaryn.
"We couldn't do this without them, not on this scale," she said.
Harry Mitchell, who was homeless for about three years before getting an apartment two months ago, said having a place to go is important for the people who were there on Thanksgiving.
"It's more than just someplace to have a meal," Mitchell said. "These people are privy to each others problems and have a common understanding. A lot of it is sheer companionship."
Across town a group of students, teachers and administrators at the Hartford Culinary Arts Academy were preparing to serve their first community Thanksgiving dinner in the schools new dining room. The meal was prepared in the school's new $1 million kitchen, which opened in September.
Program director Roger Cote said Thursday that the academy was looking for ways to further utilize the new kitchen and reach out to the neighborhood around the North End school, which is housed in Weaver High School.
Teacher Julie Totten said Thursday's event was also geared toward the school's student population. The academy's 300-plus students qualify for free breakfast and lunch.
"We have students here who may or may not have a hot meal at home," Totten said.
Alex Diaz, a sophomore in the academy who volunteered to prepare Thursday's meal and began work at 7:30 a.m., offered a simple reason for being there.
"I love to help," Diaz said, who was among about a half dozen students to help serve meals.
With a about a half-hour to go in the event, Cote said they had served 30 to 35 meals to students and their families and neighborhood residents. They prepared enough food to feed more than 100 people.
"I wish we had a line out the door," said Cote, adding that the leftovers would be taken to the South Park Inn homeless shelter.
"None of the food is going to go to waste," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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