PAWTUCKET — It began over 25 years ago when Shea High School teacher Stan Lachut and outreach worker Joan Doyle would hear about some students whose families seemed to be having a hard time financially. The two co-workers would try to drum up support among their fellow staffers to donate money, canned goods, turkeys and other grocery items so they could create holiday food baskets.
At Thanksgiving and again at Christmas, Lachut and Doyle would deliver the baskets to the students' homes. During these visits, they would often get a glimpse of the hardships and poor conditions that many of the students were living under. “There was one time when I opened a family's refrigerator to put the turkey inside and there was nothing in it but a bottle of water,” recalled Lachut.
Over the years, the holiday basket food drive grew, as, unfortunately, did the need. In addition to delivering the baskets to individual families, multiples were brought to Galego Court, where many of the Shea students resided. Once Doyle's husband Jim became mayor, she would hear of even more cases of city residents needing assistance, and the Prospect Heights housing complex and Cunningham Elementary School, which runs the Child Opportunity Zone (COZY) program, were added to the list.
After Lachut and Doyle retired, they continued the food drive. As Pawtucket's First Lady, Joan Doyle had access to greater resources through City Hall to raise money. Also, employees such as Ed Tetzner, the mayor's government affairs aide, and Herb Weiss, the city's economic and cultural affairs officer, came on board, lobbying local businesses each year to contribute cash and food items to “Joan's Holiday Basket Fund.”
Among the many local businesses who have helped make the holiday basket program a success are: Ama's Variety Store, Aldi Supermarket, Armando's Meat Market, BJ's Wholesale Club, Central Paper, Country Kitchen, the C-Town Supermarket, CVS pharmacy, Eastside Marketplace, K-Mart, Main Street Market, Make a Difference Foundation, Price-Rite Grocery, Rite-Aid Pharmacy, Sam's Club, Save-A-Lot, Shri Yoga, Stop & Shop, Target, Walgreens, Wal-Mart, We Share Hope, and the Whole Foods Market. In addition to many other individual donations received, the residents of Riverfront Lofts and over 20 families from the neighborhood of Countryside, thanks to an effort by Sen. James Doyle III and his wife, Jackie, also contributed to the program.
“Herb and Ed have been a tremendous help. And we needed people with trucks. We used to go door-to-door, but this is more than a two-person operation now,” Doyle said. While the duo used to deliver baskets for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, they now focus just on Thanksgiving for the food drive. At Christmastime, there is a holiday toy drive that the Mayor's Office and other local businesses help sponsor and coordinate.
For many years now, Doyle and Lachut, along with a small group of volunteers, have assembled 250 food baskets, which include a turkey and all of the fixings needed for a Thanksgiving meal. Working out of an empty building on Commerce Street, they have begun sorting and packaging the food items. They will deliver the non-perishable items first over the new few days. The turkeys are brought in separately just a day or two before the holiday.
“Unfortunately, the need has grown. We're seeing a lot more of what you would call the 'working poor,'” noted Doyle. “People are just having a hard time making ends meet, and, unfortunately, I don't see this ending anytime soon.”
This week has been “crunch time” and there are lot of grocery items waiting to be sorted, but Doyle and Lachut, who are also longtime friends, say they have always enjoyed the basket project because they know how much it is appreciated by the recipients. “It gives us an opportunity to give back for all of the good things we have received in life,” Lachut stated, to which Doyle agreed.
“And we do have fun,” Doyle said, smiling. She noted that while more volunteers could be brought in to help, she and Lachut actually work better with less outside hands involved because they have their own “system” of assembly. “I'm not saying it couldn't be done quicker or better in another way, but we know 'our' way,” she joked.
Doyle said that in many cases, the goodwill comes back around. She recalled that last year, the father of a student at Cunningham Elementary School brought in two large boxes of canned goods. “He said he had been a recipient of a food basket in the past, but was now getting back on his feet and wanted to give back,” noted Doyle.
While the two friends have willingly stepped up to the plate for over two decades, both Doyle and Lachut are looking to gradually ease back from the annual project. “We've enjoyed it. But 25 years is a long time,” noted Doyle. Particularly with a new administration coming in and other changes, “we're hoping someone else picks up the ball” she said.
Canned goods and non-perishable food items or cash donations are being accepted up until Saturday for the holiday basket program. Items can be dropped off in the Mayor's Office or with Herb Weiss at the Pawtucket Planning Department on the third floor of the Visitors Center. Checks should be made payable to Joan's Holiday Basket Fund, Pawtucket Planning Department, 175 Main St., 3rd Floor, Pawtucket, RI 02960.