By Cheryl Conway
The true meaning of Thanksgiving resonated inside the Mt. Olive Senior Center in Flanders on Thur., Nov. 24, for the 34 guests and even the host family.
Senior citizens, two families and three couples gathered at 1:30 p.m. for the first annual Thanksgiving Family Dinner hosted as an outreach to the community. Rather than spending the holiday alone, local residents attended the free local feast to enjoy all the traditional trimmings.
While the food was delicious and many left with fuller tummies, it was the warmth and the gesture of being with others which mattered that much more.
“The meaning of Thanksgiving took on a whole new one,” says Mary Lalama of Flanders, organizer of the community feast along with her husband, Mt. Olive Council President Joe Nicastro- co-publishers of New View Media Group newspapers. “We all realized that we need to be thankful for people God has put into our lives. They are all very special and to be a part of helping those around us we can truly be thankful for all we have and from where we came.
“Never take anyone for granted either,” Lalama continues. “Our purpose in life to make others feel loved and appreciated. We had the best time spent together. By serving others we were able to spend time together and really focus on the true meaning of Thanksgiving.”
This dinner was free to any Mt. Olive resident in need of assistance or alone on Thanksgiving.
Lalama had come up with the idea at her family Thanksgiving dinner last year. “We were saying that we had so much food and that it would be nice to host a Thanksgiving dinner where less fortunate families can come and eat and feel like they are part of a bigger family and have an experience of dining out for the holiday.”
Their gesture was worth all the effort.
“It made me so happy to be able to give back,” says Lalama. “My son Frank said ‘when you first brought up the idea it was like we are really gonna do this?’ But by the end of the day he said he was so proud of everyone and what a great thing he was a part of. Just to change one person’s frown into a smile was so worth it and he really enjoyed helping out.”
Lalama and her crew of about 15 family members and friends went to the senior center at 11 a.m. that morning to set up.
After 12 deliveries, “We started with a cheese n crackers platter, salad, pasta, and turkey dinner: turkey, sweet potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans, broccoli and carrots, assorted pies and cookies, coffee and tea.”
The food was donated from various locations. LongHorn SteakHouse in Flanders donated “trays n trays of food.” Claude from Branda’s Italian Grill in Budd Lake cooked two turkeys, some pies and cookies. Philly Pretzel from Hackettstown came and brought pretzels in the shape of turkeys!
Lalama’s neighbor, Victoria Sherrer donated about 10 assorted pies. “Peach ones were the favorite of the seniors.”
They also received a donation of $150 in Shoprite gift cards and other food donations as well as water and soda.
Lalama and Nicastro spent about $300 for some food, table clothes, cups, napkins, utensils and other items.
It’s “amazing how much people appreciated it and made their day,” says Lalama. “Being with someone on a holiday and not being alone made so many people smile. We were even able to have the honor of serving a veteran.”
Reactions from guests were “Smiles and thanks,” says Lalama. “Most important was to see people smiling and interacting.”
As if she was a host in her house, Lalama created a welcoming atmosphere so everyone felt at home, and even provided rides to those who needed a lift.
“We had a greeter when they first came in,” says Lalama. “We sat people together and we all walked around to every table and spoke to everyone individually to make them know we loved that they were sharing Thanksgiving with us.”
Lalama hopes to make the community Thanksgiving feast a tradition.
“The only thing different I would do is get the word out sooner to try and reach many more people,” says Lalama.
She also shared a “Really a huge thank you to everyone that donated and helped with the dinner. A special thank you to Ralph from LongHorn for the tremendous amounts of food, enough for everyone and for some take home for the attendees.”