Let us give thanks

Nanci G. Hutson | November 22, 2011 | Dustin Easley Memorial Foundation; CACD; Danbury; Thanksgiving; Community Action; CAFCA; Connecticut Association for Community Action; Volunteers

Lisa Srenaski, 53, left, of Danbury picks up food for a Thanksgiving dinner. The Community Action Committee of Danbury (CACD) workers are from left, Jennifer Miller, Don Maxwell and Barbara Flynn. CACD distributed food for Thanksgiving to several hundred households Friday.
Photo taken Friday, Nov. 18, 2011. Photo: Carol Kaliff / The News-Times

An empty chair at the Easleys' New Milford dining room table makes celebrating a home Thanksgiving meal unthinkable. 

So eight years ago -- the year after 22-year-old Dustin Easley, a Purdue University senior, was killed in a double-fatality car crash on Thanksgiving morning -- his family, friends and neighbors started a new tradition, an annual Thanksgiving meal delivery and community dinner that honors his memory.

"We could never prepare a Thanksgiving meal again in our home and sit at the dining table and see that empty chair," said Sheila Easley, Dustin's mother. "So we decided to do what Dustin would want us to do, and that is to help those who are less fortunate."

So Sheila Easley, along with her husband, Sam, and Dustin's younger sister, Katie, 30, created the Dustin Easley Memorial Foundation to provide this community event as well as other give-back opportunities throughout the year.

Thanksgiving has long been a time-honored tradition in America, of course, a holiday to be thankful for family and friends, good food and a warm home.

But what about those among us in Greater Danbury with tighter family budgets than ever before? What about those with nowhere to go this Thanksgiving?

Where do they turn for the spirit of the holiday?

Some folks will no doubt fill up a plate and enjoy the hospitality of the Easley family.

Others will visit St. James Episcopal Church in Danbury, where congregant Linda Spaziani and her family -- husband, Domenic, and 18-year-old son, Anthony -- will share their Thanksgiving once again.

It's all part of the church's 30-year tradition to serve a noon holiday meal to those who depend on the Dorothy Day Hospitality House for their daily meal most weekdays.

On Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving, the Jericho Partnership in Danbury, with the help of the area's Christian community, will offer an early Thanksgiving feast at St. Paul's Lutheran Church on Spring Street with three seatings that begin at 4:30 p.m., 6 p.m. and 7:15 p.m.

The Jericho Partnership will also give families who attend Tuesday's feast a "Box of Love" -- complete preparations for a turkey and trimmings holiday meal.

A year ago, the organization served 175 families. This year, the number has jumped to 250 with a waiting list, said executive director Carrie Amos.

For those guests who are staying in Danbury shelters, Amos said, they are given a bag of toiletries and other supplies to take with them when they leave.

To date, the organization has recruited about 100 volunteers to help with the event, whether it's serving or making donations of food. State Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, recently completed a turkey drive for them that garnered 30 for the collection, Amos said.

"It's our call as the Christian community to step up and serve our neighbors," said Amos, who will be attending with her three young children ages 6, 5 and 3. "This feels like we are doing what God expects us to do: to help our neighbors in need."

It's no different with the Easley family.

Instead of focusing on the empty seat at their family table, the Easleys revel in filling the chairs in the church hall with people from every circumstance, whether it is a family separated by divorce, empty nesters whose children are far away, or a working mother with no time to cook a meal.

Whatever the circumstances, Sheila Easley said people are welcome to come and eat, chat and celebrate the holiday with friends they have yet to meet. They even accommodate those who want to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, followed by the NFL football games.

Last year, the Easleys and their cadre of volunteers prepared and delivered 46 meals to area families, who, without them, would have had no Thanksgiving dinner.

They then played host for about 100 guests, including the meal preparation volunteers, for the community dinner that this year will begin at 2 p.m. and is open to anyone who wishes to attend.

Easley expects the numbers for both to be higher this year.

"We see Dustin all day. He loved to cook, and we know that this is exactly the way he would want to spend Thanksgiving," said his mother. "These Thanksgiving dinners have come to represent all of the great qualities our son, Dustin, had. Every single one of these dinners is prepared with love in Dustin's honor and memory."

At St. James Episcopal Church in Danbury, the annual Thanksgiving dinner averages between 125 and 150 people, all of whom are also given a bag lunch of peanut butter and jelly and a clementine to take with them afterward because they may not get another meal until the following day, Linda Spaziani said.

"This is what Thanksgiving is all about ... it truly is our church at its finest," said Spaziani, noting that a homeless gentleman who is a regular each year offers his thanks by playing the piano for the fellow guests.

Danbury restaurateur George Korres, the owner of Nico's Pizza and Pasta on Main Street, shares many of those same sentiments.

On Thanksgiving morning, Korres and his staff, joined by a number of other downtown restaurants and business people, serve food and beverages to as many as 200 people who are on the downtown streets.

The brainchild of John Webber, a teacher at the Alternative Education Center in Danbury, this event brings together area youth to help not only serve food to the less fortunate but to also give out coats and warm clothing they collect for this cause, Korres said.

"Before they go to their own homes with all the familiar aromas, they see something they won't normally see," Korres said. "This shows them (the volunteers) that they lived a blessed life... and they should always give back."

Beyond these big events, other civic groups, churches and social service departments in every town throughout the region have organized holiday drives, food baskets and hot meals to be served to those in need.

The volunteers and social workers said the demand is growing and requires time and energy. Yet they accept that generosity is not always easy because they do not wish anyone to be forgotten during the holidays.

"It's a totally exhausting day, but a totally exhilarating day," Easley said. "It helps us more than anybody will ever know."

Hutson, Nanci G. Newstimes.com. "Let us give thanks". November 22, 2011.

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