A Good Meal and a Sense of Community

As many Vermonters continue to struggle to make ends meet in the wake of the most severe recession to hit the United States in generations, Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to highlight some of the outstanding efforts throughout Vermont that often go unnoticed. Each year, countless businesses, nonprofits and individuals create ways to help their fellow Vermonters. This year, for example, marked the 24th year a Burlington, Vt.-restaurant has offered a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, at no cost. Nearly 1,000 dinners and 700 coats were given away this year.

Since the “Thanksgiving Community Dinner” started 24 years ago at Sweetwaters American Bistro, owner David Melincoff estimates more than 20,000 meals have been given away.

Chris Hoopengardner, 28, was one of the many volunteers who worked to make the dinner a success. This was the second year Hoopengardner volunteered. The decision to sign up again was a no-brainer. “It blew me away. It was the best thing I could have done on Thanksgiving,” Hoopengardner said.

The dinner, a traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, is served from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The meal is essentially the same experience a diner would have eating at the restaurant on another night, including waiter service which is provided by the volunteers. The main difference is the meal is free -- and the sense of community is undeniable. 

It’s not only people who are having financial difficulties who take advantage of the Thanksgiving Community Dinner. “Sometimes it’s an emotional need,” Melincoff said. “Sometimes people have lost a loved one and they just want to be around people.”

The Thanksgiving Community Dinner, he said, provides an opportunity where people, regardless of how much or how little money they have, can sit a table next each other and be served a Thanksgiving meal.  “Here, they just feel equal. That’s the part that always gets me,” Melincoff said. “It’s about self-respect.”

The meal, however, is just part of the day-long event. Hundreds of coats, which are collected in advance by the Windjammer Restaurant in South Burlington, are given away as well. This year, Melincoff said roughly 700 coats were provided to people who needed them. The coat donation drive was added as another layer of the Community Dinner about four years ago. Next year, Melincoff hopes to expand the reach of the Thanksgiving Day event by busing in Vermonters who couldn’t otherwise attend. 

Local residents and a range of members of the business community pitch in to make the Thanksgiving Community Dinner a success. Costco donates breads and other items, a variety of local vendors supply meats, and people throughout greater Burlington bring in baked good that they made for desserts, Melincoff said.

Everyone gets something out of the event. For the volunteers, Melincoff noted, “It puts things into perspective about what you should be grateful for.”

Sweetwaters’ “Thanksgiving Community Dinner” is just one of the many ways Vermonters are looking to make a difference in other people’s lives.  South Burlington, Vt.- based Merchants Bank, for example, is working with the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO) to raise money to bolster the WARMTH fund to ensure Vermonters stay warm this winter; and the Vermont Foodbank has developed a “BackPack” program in 2008 that sends children home with a backpack full of healthy food to ensure local families have access to nutritious food throughout the weekend. This school year, more than 20 Vermont schools are participating. 

Bernie wants to hear from you about what other Vermonters are doing. In upcoming editions of the Vt. Bernie Buzz, their good works will be highlighted.