SALEM— Along with the tap dance classes, bingo games, monthly birthday parties, and other special moments at the Jean A. Levesque Community Life Center, there is one tradition for which Salem’s senior citizens are especially grateful.
It’s Thanksgiving Day dinner, with all the yummy fixings, delivered to the homes of shut-ins or low-income seniors. More than 150 people will receive free meals on Thursday, dropped off by volunteers organized by the Friends of the Salem Council on Aging.
The dinners aim to bring holiday cheer to seniors, many of whom do not have family to celebrate the holiday, said Andrew LaPointe, the longtime president of the nonprofit Friends group.
“These are people who just don’t go anywhere,” LaPointe said. “They’re shut-ins who don’t have the opportunity to take part in the free dinners that are being held [in-person] by other groups.”
“We just want to make sure that the seniors do have an opportunity to be able to have a Thanksgiving meal; otherwise, they wouldn’t have anything, and may not take part in Thanksgiving itself,” he said.
Rosanna Donahue, activities coordinator for the Council on Aging, helps to plan the deliveries to ensure seniors most in need have a hot meal to enjoy.
“Our main focus is to serve those who are really in need, and that don’t have family around to celebrate with,” she said. “We want to make sure those are the people who take advantage of the meals.”
Salem’s senior population, or people over age 65, account for 16.2 percent of the city’s 41,312 residents, according to the most recent federal census data. But the North Shore city, famous for its historic seaport and for its witch trials hundreds of years ago, is not wealthy, data show.
As of 2019, Salem’s per capita income was $38,400, and the poverty rate was 14.7 percent, the data show. By comparison, Massachusetts had a per capita income of $43,761 and a 9 percent poverty rate, according to the data.
The Friends group spends much of the year raising money to pay for the holiday dinners, as well as other services, such as exercise classes at the community center.
Most of the money is raised by community donations, such as appeal letters sent to residents and businesses. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down fund-raising. An annual pasta dinner, for example, had to be canceled the last two years. This year, a fall reception was held instead, featuring a talk by a local historian.
“Every penny we make goes to the seniors,” LaPointe said. “Salem is a great community. All you have to do is ask for something, and if it makes sense, people will help.”
Brothers Taverna, a local restaurant that cooks the meals, donates about one-third of the cost of each turkey dinner, said Manny Cruz, the restaurant’s president of business development.
Donahue organizes an army of volunteers, who help prepare the meals and package the food at the restaurant on Thanksgiving morning. Once the meals are packaged, volunteers drive the boxes directly to the seniors’ homes.
“They’re preparing the entire day, waiting the delivery of the meal,” Cruz said. “They’ve got the door unlocked and they’re hoping to see a volunteer.”
“And they can tell that they’re smiling behind the mask,” Cruz said, referring to the COVID-19 protocols in place for safe delivery.
And for sure, the seniors who enjoy the dinners, are grateful for the help of their “Friends.”
“Outside my office,” Donahue said, “I have a half-wall full of thank-you notes from seniors who were appreciative of what we’ve done for them.”
Kathy McCabe of the Globe staff contributed to this story.
Katie Redefer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.