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Despite pandemic, many find ways to keep giving during this season of thanks

Endicott College student Grace Vartanian and other students load donated food that will benefit The Open Door, a food pantry in Gloucester.
Endicott College student Grace Vartanian and other students load donated food that will benefit The Open Door, a food pantry in Gloucester.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

In a non-pandemic November, Carrie Wu would be preparing to run the Feaster Five road race in Andover on Thanksgiving morning, her hard-earned miles helping to raise money for a variety of local causes.

Susan Dorson and her staff at Arlington EATS, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing food insecurity, would be organizing the dozens of canned goods and pantry supplies that Girl Scouts, elementary school classes, and other helpful groups typically gather in annual food drives at this time of year.

And Warren Nicoli, director at A New Way Recovery Center in Quincy, would be joining his colleagues to serve a communal Thanksgiving dinner to their clients.

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Instead, similar to how families everywhere are rethinking their plans to gather on Thanksgiving, charitable outreach organizations are having to find new ways to meet the needs that often seem particularly acute at this time of year.

“We’ve had to think out of the box since March,” said Bryna Rogers, a program director with Bay State Community Services, based in Quincy. “Now we’re thinking about how we can best support families through the Thanksgiving season.”

Rogers points out that many food pantries are overburdened by demand this year. As a result, she and her staff will ensure that some clients receive Thanksgiving bags with nonperishable food items plus supermarket gift cards.

In past years, A New Way Recovery Center has partnered with a nearby restaurant, Craig’s Café, to serve a pre-Thanksgiving buffet to approximately 40 to 60 clients.

Faced with the reality that no communal dinner could take place, director Nicoli went to Craig’s Café owner Tom Anacone to discuss other possibilities. Anacone offered a discount on individual Thanksgiving meals prepared by his staff for the recovery center’s clients to bring home.

“We can’t offer the experience of eating together in person this year, but we can still give our clients something special for their holiday dinner,” said Nicoli. “At the same time, by going to Craig’s Café, which typically partners with us for events throughout the year and is probably facing more of a struggle this year, we can give some support to a locally owned business that may especially need it.”

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Turning Point Recovery Support Center in Walpole is addressing the particular concerns of the 2020 Thanksgiving season with a sign-holding campaign on the Walpole Town Common.

“It’s similar to a political rally,” explained Cory O’Brien, program director. “We’re making signs with messages like ‘Recovery is possible; come talk to us’ and ‘There’s hope for you and your family.’ We’ll be out there in the days before Thanksgiving and other days throughout the year as well. Our hope is that messaging like this can help break the stigma of addiction and let people know that recovery is real and possible — for all of us and for anyone.”

Staff from Turniing Point Recovery Support Center make signs to encourage and inspire people on the Walpole town common.
Staff from Turniing Point Recovery Support Center make signs to encourage and inspire people on the Walpole town common. DebeeTlumacki

Andrea Rhoades, director of community service at Endicott College in Beverly, devotes much of the academic year to organizing ways for her student population to reach out to the greater North Shore community, and holiday-themed events are often part of that effort.

But even in this contact-free year, student groups at Endicott, as at many other colleges and universities, are finding ways to help. Last month they invited faculty and staff members to leave food contributions outside their office doors for contact-free pickup.

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“It was actually really fun to go around and pick up all the donations,” said Caroline Payne, student coordinator for the food drive, which will benefit The Open Door, a food pantry in Gloucester. “We had enough to fill my car, which was great. I’ve participated in food drives my whole life, but this was my first opportunity to plan one myself.”

For Susan Dorson, program manager for Arlington EATS, social distancing requirements mean that she has to manage operations with far less manpower. “Our normal Thanksgiving drive required upwards of 40 people to deal with all of the incoming donations, but our limit of 12 people working at a time makes that impossible,” she said.

Spreading out the bounty is one way to counteract that problem; Dorson would like to see groups bring in donations throughout the fall and winter, not just in the week leading up to Thanksgiving. Although Arlington EATS will have opportunities for clients to come pick out their own groceries, the majority of distribution this year will happen through preassembled grocery bags delivered by Dorson’s team.

In Boxborough, the Price family is putting an academic spin on its Thanksgiving outreach this year. Eight-year-old twins Sophia and Julian are doing virtual learning through their public school, but their mother, Kelley, is augmenting their online curriculum with some specially tailored lessons geared toward Thanksgiving.

After she led them on a leaf-collecting walk and taught them about the kinds of trees the leaves came from, the twins made greeting cards using their leaves.

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But the lessons didn’t stop there.

“We applied math to calculate how many pieces of paper we’d need if four cards fit on one sheet of paper,” Price said. “We practiced estimation, by guessing how many cards they’d made so far based on the size of the pile. And perhaps most importantly, we talked about why nursing homes don’t have many outside visitors, and how we as individuals can make a difference in a person’s day.”

The cards the Prices crafted will be distributed to the residents of a local nursing home.

Carrie Wu of North Andover discovered just a year ago that running a fund-raising road race is a great way to give back to her community. Last year she joined the Merrimack Valley Striders to complete the Feaster Five, an annual 5-mile road race that raises money for several local causes. This year, the race is virtual, but Wu, who is a volunteer organizer for the event as well as a participant, is no less intent on doing her part.

“Running on your own is not the same as joining a race,” she said. “People want the crowds, the audience, the competition. This year we’ve had to change that, but our goal is still to create an experience. By running a virtual race you can connect with friends and family even if you’re distant, and you can even connect with the other racers via social media.”

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Wu admitted that there are personal benefits as well as charitable reasons to run the race. “With everything going on, it’s nice to be physically fit and mentally stable,” she said. “Running makes me feel like I have something I can control, which is an especially good feeling this year.”

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.

Eight-year-old twins Sophia and Julian Price of Boxborough are making Thanksgiving cards to be given to residents of a local nursing home.
Eight-year-old twins Sophia and Julian Price of Boxborough are making Thanksgiving cards to be given to residents of a local nursing home. Handout