PAWTUCKET – When she had finished eating, Shirley Bergeron bundled herself back up and began walking toward the St. Joseph's Church basement exit when someone asked if she enjoyed her meal.
“Are you kidding? I'm stuffed!” gushed Bergeron, a 54-year-old Pawtucketer who took part in the first of two seatings at the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen's annual Thanksgiving Feast, held Wednesday afternoon at the Walcott Street parish.
“Honestly, it was excellent,” she added. “The cook here (Soup Kitchen Executive Director Adreinne Marchetti) is fabulous. Everything she makes is outstanding. The turkey and gravy were my favorites.”
Seconds later, she decided “but the stuffing was only OK. You see, I'm Portuguese, so I'm used to a meat stuffing.”
Approximately 35 folks – including the homeless, senior citizens, the unemployed and others – began flowing into the basement just before noon, though about 75 had been served by 12:50. They sat patiently at 14 round tables, adorned in red and blue table cloths and with six seats around each, and awaited a bevy of volunteers to serve them a traditional holiday meal restaurant-style.
Bergeron admitted she treks from her three-story tenement house apartment in the city to the soup kitchen every evening for hot food and friendly conversation.
Call those the two common denominators.
“I'm on Social Security, so I have a very low income; this helps so much,” she said solemnly. “Thankfully, I also get food stamps. I pay $650 a month for rent, and it's killing me, so I come here every night because it helps, and the food is delicious.
“I know some of these people, and they look so happy right now, eating a nice dinner,” she continued. “If not for this meal, I'd probably be outside walking and freezing. I mean, you can only stay inside the house for so long.
“Like I said, I'm didn't have any room for dessert, so I just couldn't; I think it's a sin to waste food, so I guess they'll give mine to somebody else. I'll probably try one when I come back here tonight (for the second seating, 4:30-6 p.m.).”
Marchetti revealed she was in this basement at 5 a.m., Monday and Tuesday to prepare the meals, which included 280 pounds of turkey; roasted garlic mashed potatoes and gravy; a ciabatta-bread stuffing; yams; corn; peas; cranberry sauce; and rolls and butter, not to mention coffee, apple juice and/or water to wash it down.
Among the desserts: Apple, banana cream, chocolate cream, pumpkin and custard pies, to name more than a few.
“On a daily basis, we have about 10 volunteers in the kitchen, but for this we'll have 25-30, just good-hearted folks who want to help out,” Marchetti said as she mashed a huge tub of potatoes. “They do this because they want to serve the homeless and seniors, just do something nice. But we also want to let people know that folks are poor and hungry all year.
“What's so sad is that more fortunate people feel those who are homeless and hungry, it only happens on the holidays,” she added. “No! It's all year long … I do this simply because I care. It breaks my heart to see people suffering every day.
“You can just sense it in some of them, the way they look. They seem lost, like they don't know what to do. I think we help nurture their souls, at least for a little bit.”
Marchetti indicated the soup kitchen provided two seatings because, first, they always have, since the first Thanksgiving Feast took place here back in 1992; and, second, she wants to make sure her “regulars” get a premier meal before the holiday.
“We're attached to these people, we love them,” she noted. “We made sure a lot of people knew about this by doing an outreach with the Leon Mathieu Senior Center and the Pawtucket Housing Authority. We distributed fliers in both Spanish and English.
“You know, we have one guy who comes who goes to 'Labor Ready' (on Main Street) every day, and those people don't get paid a lot,” she added. “He's told me if it wasn't for the soup kitchen, he wouldn't be able to eat. It's so sad, so touching. To me, this is like a celebration gathering. These people are my family – a dysfunctional family at times – but family nonetheless.
“We don't ask people for anything; they come in, sit down and we serve them a terrific meal. Everyone is welcome, and – sometimes with the elderly – this is a chance to socialize. They need and like to be with other people. After all, who likes sitting home all alone? Like I said, there are no judges here. If you're hungry, come on in. We'll feed you.”
Marchetti and her assistant director, Robert Quigley, promised the funding for this food wouldn't have been possible without key donations from the Stop & Shop stores at Baker's Corner in north Seekonk and on Cottage Street; nearby St. Raphael Academy; Thompson Foods; Ricky Goudreau, the chef at Morin's Catering Co. in Attleboro (who sliced the turkeys so the soup kitchen could provide portion control); and others.
Some volunteers didn't want to be mentioned, but long-time Pawtucketer Kenny LaFountaine reveled in placing the turkey on each paper plate, the lone item to be purchased by the soup kitchen staff. He was the first in quite an assembly line of other volunteers.
Marchetti wanted it known that her kitchen is open Monday through Friday from 5-5:30 p.m., serving up dinners of roast pork, ziti alforno, Shepherd's pie, lasagna and American chop suey. It also is open Saturday mornings at 10:30, where folks may partake in scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, ham, sausage, toast, etc.
(Yes, seconds are allowed on ordinary days, she laughed).
“This is such a great turnout,” grinned Chuck Sczuroski, the soup kitchen's President of the Board of Directors. “Part of this is sad to me because of the high numbers, but the refreshing part is how the community comes together to help out.
“This amazes me, because we almost closed our doors last Christmas (due to a lack of funds), but then we had a Christmas miracle. Bill Rappleye from (NBC) Ch. 10 came down to do a story about us closing, and – during the interview – he allowed us to ask the public for help.
“Within a couple of days, we were getting phone calls and people coming in to donate money, and we ended up with about $60,000 in donations. That funded this entire year's activities. I mean it, it was a Christmas miracle. In fact, John Pinkos of Texcel, Inc. in Cumberland gave us $40,000, and that pays for the kitchen staff for the year.
“It's fantastic; it doesn't get any better than this. But, again, the sad part of this for me is I've noticed the rise in the amount of the working poor, people who have full-time jobs but aren't making enough to pay for all the things they need. I know some who actually have to decide between paying rent and utilities or buying food.”
Traditionally, he explained, two to five percent of the people the kitchen attracts are children, but he's seen that number rise to 10 over the past year.
“The good news is these people leave here with a full belly, and that gives you a good feeling,” he stated. “If they come back at 4:30, there will be another meal waiting for them, thanks to Adrienne.”
When asked how he felt about his turkey dinner, Nick Bapas of Central Falls just flashed the “OK” sign with thumb and index finger in a circle.
“I'm not full yet, I want to eat some more,” he said while chewing on his banana cream pie.
Cecelia Alves, a 60-year-old resident of Fogarty Manor in Pawtucket, called the dinner scrumptious.
“I would have gone to my daughter's house (for Thanksgiving), but in her religion, they don't celebrate the holiday,” she mentioned. “I came here instead. It was great, because I know a lot of these people from the Mathieu Senior Center.”
Offered Alfred Gray, an 84-year-old Pawtucketer: “I'm just right, and it's because of the apple pie. I could have had a meal at home, but this is a much better place. I sat with a whole bunch of guys, and one told me he thought the (Detroit) Lions would beat the Patriots (today). I bet him $5 that New England would win. I think he's nuts. I hope I win.”