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Community Thanksgiving dinners serve up food, friendship

Everyone who went into St. Margaret School in Bel Air Thursday was greeted by a host of volunteers and the sight of a festive meal.

About 70 volunteers, mostly from St. Margaret Church and nearby New Hope Baptist Church, spent the morning organizing neat table settings and centerpieces, as well as plenty of food, for the first such Thanksgiving community dinner held at St. Margaret.

It was one of three such dinners in Harford County, with the best-known perhaps being the SMILES dinner up the road in Havre de Grace.

The St. Margaret organizers had planned food for about 400 people. Only about 30 people had shown up around noon, although several busloads were expected and visitors were still coming in. The dinner ran from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

For people like Edith Phaneuf, of Street, it was a chance for conversation and community.

Phaneuf said she had gone to the Open Door Café's holiday meal for four or five years, but it wasn't offered this time. She said it has been harder for her to fix dinner herself "now that I've gotten incapacitated."

"We just enjoy coming here and getting out and meeting people," Phaneuf said, adding she gives a donation for the Thanksgiving meal.

Marie Dekowski, one of the organizers of the St. Margaret dinner, said it has been in the works for about 15 years and was spearheaded by parishioner Tara Oswald.

"There's a lot of people that are just alone and by themselves, and a lot of volunteers are in that situation," Dekowski said about those coming to dinner.

Young adults or teenagers and families with children are the two major groups looking for a way to help others on Thanksgiving, Dekowski said.

"They want to help and they want to be a part of something big," she said. "I really feel we have done a really good job of trying to get everyone to do something."

Besides an opportunity for "fellowship and friends," as she put it, St. Margaret also had a coat closet that featured about 35 hats and scarves knitted by a woman from Georgia.

A table was filled with paper bags brightly decorated by St. Margaret School students and filled with necessities like tissues, as well as cookies or candy, available to visitors.

Students had also designed the pictures on the colorful place mats that had been photocopied for every table setting.

A children's table was set up in the back of the room, and Dekowski pointed out that people from at least a few other groups or churches were involved in the effort.

A family from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sang songs on stage, and some people from Trinity Lutheran Church were also among the volunteers.

"Many businesses donated food, drinks and monetary donations," Dekowski said. "It's becoming a big network."

Sharon Miller-Johnson, of Edgewood, was a New Hope member talking with Deacon Vic Petrosino, of Bel Air, who was with St. Margaret.

Both said the event gave them a chance to meet others in the community and help people.

"Thanksgiving is a day to be thankful. I am very grateful for just being alive and having my family and there are others who may not be as fortunate," Miller-Johnson said, explaining she has never done anything like this dinner before.

"It's better to give than to receive," she said. "I think it's great."

Petrosino agreed with that, saying that heaven itself might be "like a great banquet."

"When you think of the idea of giving praise and thanks to God, the greatest thing is to take the very simple thing Jesus said: 'Love your neighbor as yourself,'" he said.

Karen Sparzak, of Bel Air, was helping her 11-year-old daughter Gabby, a St. Margaret student, pass out paper leaves where visitors could write what they were thankful for, to be displayed in the room afterward.

Gabby Sparzak said the dinner was a nice thing to do.

"I think it's kind," she said, adding there were a lot of helpers and volunteers.

Karen Sparzak said her family usually takes part in an Adopt-a-Family program for Thanksgiving but decided to come out to the dinner this time.

"For kids, it's much better than collecting food," she said. "It makes it more concrete. They can really see and feel it, and they can really appreciate what they have."

In Aberdeen, the Rogers Street firehouse was stocked with plenty of food and volunteers for the annual community dinner sponsored by the Evangelistic Church of Deliverance led by Pastor Patricia Pringle. Volunteers were busy in the kitchen, in the serving line and at the dessert table. The volunteers also offered clean, used clothing and other items for those coming to dinner.

Over in Havre de Grace, the SMILES dinner attracted perhaps its biggest group of volunteers to date, with at least a couple hundred people in St. Patrick Hall by 10:30 a.m. to be given assignments, help deliver food or serve it in the hall.

"I think we have more volunteers than we have ever had," Elaine Bennett, an organizer, said.

The dinner, which has been happening for nearly a quarter of a century, would prepare food for about 500 people.

"It's pretty much the same thing every year and it always seems to run very smoothly," Bennett said. "I don't think any other [Thanksgiving dinner-organizing groups] actually serve in-house and deliver."

She noted the dinner is a draw not only for the so-called needy, but also simply for people who want a place to celebrate Thanksgiving with others.

"A lot of people think it's for the homeless and stuff like that, but it's really not. It's for anybody," Bennett said. "It's for people that just want some place to eat. It really is a diverse group of people that come in."

The dinner again drew new volunteers who had never been to SMILES and were eager to help.

One of them was Savanna Seymour, 17, of Rising Sun, who came with her grandfather, Bob Corvino, of Rising Sun.

"I just felt the need to help the less fortunate," Savanna said. "I just was looking for something."

She said she has volunteered before, but never on Thanksgiving.

"I just think it's a good thing to help the less fortunate, to give back," she said.

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