Brattleboro Thanksgiving sees no shortage of volunteers

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BRATTLEBORO >> Peter Wiles says 102 meals were brought to folks unable to make it to the downtown Thanksgiving celebration.

"I had oodles of help," said Wiles, who coordinated deliveries by assigning drivers and getting boxes of food ready to go to shut-ins from Putney to Bernardston, Mass. "I think that's the highest. We've been in the area of 100 but it was a good turnout."

Thursday's 43rd annual community Thanksgiving dinner brought together people of all ages at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden in downtown Brattleboro. The place was packed. Much of the food came from local sources and local hands helped make the meal possible in various ways.

"We had a good year as far as volunteers go," said Wiles. "You get over in the Masonic Lodge and everyone wants to know everybody. If they don't know everybody, they go around and introduce themselves. So it's a big social event."

Having so many people, Wiles said he had to turn people down for the driving jobs.

"That doesn't usually happen. Usually I'm scraping," he said. "It was very successful from my point of view and other people's point of view. The staff really, really, appreciates the volunteers. Without the volunteers, we'd be nothing."

Alyse Landis took on the position of volunteer coordinator this Thanksgiving after years of making gluten-free vegan mushroom gravy with her dad Loren Landis, a favorite among attendees.

"It was great. At times we had so many volunteers that we were trying to figure out jobs for them all," Alyse said of the approximately 80 people lending assistance. "I think we had 39 turkeys and 33 or more were cooked off-site at people's homes."

Cherry Rail Farm owner Jim Westbrook smoked his own pig, Alyse told the Reformer inside the Brattleboro Masonic Lodge where volunteers would cook food then bring it to the River Garden across the street.

"It's so interesting because of the logistics," Alyse added. "Cutting boards were lent to us by the (Brattleboro) Co-op."

When cranberries were running out, someone went to the store and was told to bring back a receipt. Instead, that person donated them.

"People are just appreciative and want to help," Alyse said. "It's a pretty awesome thing. A lot goes into it."

James Branagan chopped vegetables and made stuffing the night before.

"I help every year with the prep," James said. "You get your cutting board out and sharp knife, put on some headphones or talk when people come in. It's great. You just chop bag after bag of onions or carrots, potatoes or mushrooms."

All of the food is donated for the event which has an approximate annual attendance of 500 people. James' father Ray Branagan begins putting calls out after Labor Day as the weekly meetings used for planning the meal start up again. Ray's employer G.S. Precision contributed $500 plus "a lot of the birds and hams," he said.

An idea to make macaroni and cheese this year required more cheese from Grafton Cheese.

"I think it went over really well," said Ray, who says much of the food used for the meal is locally grown or produced.

"Not all of it is local by any means," James added. "A good portion is. Especially all the vegetables. The pig was, the pulled pork was."

What brings volunteers back year after year is likely the community spirit, Ray said.

For James, it's knowing he helped put on such a large event.

"We wouldn't have one without community support. And then just to see how many people show up and how many are fed," James said. "Not to mention connecting people and having them talk to each other. We pass each other in the street all the time but it's nice to sit down and strike up a conversation with a stranger. It's very Vermonty. Not just Vermont. It's what every community needs."

Leftover food from the dinner is donated to Brattleboro food pantry St. Brigid's Kitchen for Friday's noontime lunch.

"It's always nice finishing it up and cleaning it up for another year," said Ray.

In the lodge's kitchen, overseeing the cooking was Andrezej Mikijaniec, chef and owner of a Polish food stand on Flat Street in Brattleboro.

"I said it's time to give back," Mikijaniec said. "This is a good cause and it's fun. I enjoy it."

The beginning was hectic, he said, "but that's normal." Preparations started Wednesday then came Thursday's cooking. Counted in the kitchen were approximately 30 or 40 volunteers.

"Everybody from around the town and the area helped out. That's amazing," said Mikijaniec. "I wish everybody could work that way so the world could be peaceful."

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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