Feeding Wilmington

Friday September 2, 2011

WILMINGTON -- Four days after floods ravaged this small town on the western edge of Windham County, residents continue to pull together to help with clean up and repairs.

"It's complete devastation. There's buildings that were washed off their foundations. There's buildings that are gone. It looks like a war zone."

That's how Katie McCarthy described the scene on Thursday, adding that credentials were still needed to enter the downtown area.

While there's still a National Guard presence in the town, control has been handed back over to the Wilmington Police Department. The town's pergola is still standing, but the Main Street bridge it stands beside is a safety concern, effectively splitting one side of town from the other.

"A lot of people are wearing face masks and rubber gloves due to the air quality," McCarthy said, noting the amount of soot and debris blowing around Main Street where groups of residences continue to clear up the mess.

Katie McCarthy lives in Brattleboro, but the company she works for, Reinhart Burlington Food Service Co., supplies a lot of food to Deerfield Valley area schools, institutions and eating establishments.

"(Thursday) was the first day we were able to get one of our trucks over here," she said. "For four days, people weren't really able to get in here for anything."

On Thursday, food was finally able to be delivered to places like the Jacksonville Senior Center and Wahoo's Eatery in Wilmington, which plans to open for business this weekend. Due to road conditions, which prevent larger trucks from easy travel in the area, McCarthy was planning a personal trip by car later Thursday to bring supplies to Wilmington Inn and Tavern.

Similar car trips were made on Wednesday afternoon to Dover area restaurants which had run out of food -- 110 cases spread among three cars.

On Thursday Reinhart also made a delivery to Twin Valley High School (a donation), which has turned into the area's emergency center. Here, town officials, emergency responders and volunteers continue to coordinate efforts and collect and put out information. It is also where many in the community are finding comfort in a good, hearty meal.

At the heart of that effort is Joseph Geradi -- affectionately known in the community as "Chef Joe G." -- who runs the Twin Valley food program as the chef manager.

It might appear to some as if Chef Joe has been living in the Twin Valley cafeteria, serving up three meals a day -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- since the flooding, to "anybody in the community in need."

"It's a community thing ... these are the families of my students that I serve every day. I really feel for these people," Chef Joe told the Reformer Thursday afternoon, during a brief break between meals. "I wanted to get down here."

Chef Joe lives just a couple of miles from the school, and was on his way to work Monday morning, unaware of the destruction Irene had left behind.

"I had a feeling when I went to get coffee on Monday morning and saw the National Guard downtown," Chef Joe said. "I had no idea (the extent of the damage)."

"As soon as I knew that, I called up to the house, told the family I wouldn't be back ... that there was a disaster downtown and it was a lot worse than we could ever imagine," he said.

Chef Joe was on hand during the last big disaster to strike the area -- the ice storm in 2008 -- so he knows the best way he can help out in a disaster.

As luck would have it, the school had just received a food delivery late last week, in anticipation of the coming school year, so while supplies were slow to arrive following Sunday's storm, there were meals available.

He started the week serving typical food the school students would be eating, but since then he's tried to expand the menu wherever possible, especially as donations from the community continue to come in.

"He's also doing ziti and a baked mac and cheese," McCarthy said. "He's trying to go above and beyond hotdogs. His staff is trying to put together decent, quality meals."

Wilmington Town Manager Fred Ventresco said Chef Joe's meals have been a real treat and a nice break from all that has been happening over the past few days.

"It's some of the best food in town," he said. "You wouldn't know it was a crisis by the food. We are glad to have him."

Chef Joe says that it's "a pride issue" and credits his sense of professionalism.

"I don't want to just have a typical soup kitchen," he said. "It's the same as I try to do with the students at the school."

McCarthy has known Chef Joe for 14 years, and considers him a close friend.

"Joe is just one of those good, down to earth, friendly, charismatic guys," she said. "He knows everybody, likes everybody." Despite the recent emergency, "he's in there still smiling and laughing."

Chef Joe is just one of the many everyday residents many consider a hero these days.

Volunteers of all ages have been bringing meals to other volunteers, scattered throughout the community, clearing the mess and making repairs.

"There's lots of volunteers, right down to children," McCarthy said, "willing to pack bags with chips and sandwiches ... going to different places around town where there are crews working."

Chef Joe estimates that 150-200 meals were being served at the beginning of the week, but he served close to 400 lunches on Thursday afternoon. His crew had also just delivered food to 60 people at the West Dover fire house, which had also been converted into an emergency center.

"The National Guard moved out this morning, so we were supposed to slow down ... but there's just so many people that are here, downtown," he said.

Now that the roads were a little better, combined with the fact that a lot of people are out of work due to the long holiday weekend, Chef Joe said more volunteers were coming to help out.

"The outpouring of support is unbelievable."

So while the clean-up continues on the streets, Chef Joe will be continuing to turn out meals.

That hard work is not going unnoticed. In addition to a grateful community, Chef Joe got a personal thanks from Patrick Leahy during the senator's tour of the area this week.

"I'm not sure what's going on outside," he said, most likely due to the fact he's spending about 16 hours a day in the kitchen. "But progress is getting made. I'm hearing a lot of good things."

That positive attitude, which many call infectious, is one of the many bright sparks lighting Wilmington's road to recovery.

"We have to keep them smiling."

Tom D'Errico can be reached at tderrico@reformer.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 252.


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