Editor’s Note: The following article appeared in the Friday, Nov. 23, 2018, edition of the Webster Times.
By JASON BLEAU
WEBSTER — Over the last few months the Blessed Backpack Brigade has had a lot to be thankful for. The organization, which is geared toward helping local families and homeless individuals in need, has received a large influx of support from local community businesses and organizations since losing the bulk of their supplies as a result of the EF-1 tornado in Webster in August, but the group has marched ahead with their mission and continued to offer their bi-weekly meals at the American Legion in Webster.
It almost seems fitting that after all of that help, from donation to fundraisers, that the group would enjoy one of its most successful meals yet a weekend before Thanksgiving as families come together to give thanks to all that they have and the blessing of togetherness and community. Lauri Joseph, one of the founders of the organization along with her husband and Dudley Selectman Paul Joseph, was near speechless when talking about the support the group has received during a very special Thanksgiving-themed meal on Wednesday, Nov. 14, the third annual holiday-themed meal the organization has held during its tenure.
“There are no words to describe how grateful we are. It warms our hearts to see this. People have been contacting us to see what we need ever since the storm,” Lauri Joseph said. “We normally serve 120 to 150 people at these meals by the end of the night. Every time there are new faces here and while I’m happy people are coming on the other hand it’s very sad that they have to come here.”
Much to Joseph’s surprise, the Thanksgiving meal actually surpassed the average with a rough tally of 163 meals served over a little over an hour. It was among the biggest meals the organization served in 2018.
But what made this Thanksgiving meal even more special is that it was completely supported by the students and staff of Nichols College in Dudley. It’s nothing new for Nichols to be involved with the Blessed Backpack Brigade’s meals. After all, Nichols dining services manager David Hebert has offered his chef services as the lead cook for the meals for some time.
However, the Thanksgiving meal brought an even bigger commitment with students and staff serving the food throughout the night.
Beth Gionfriddo, director of student involvement and co-chair of the Emerging Leaders Program at Nichols, said the meal was a chance for students to step up and be a larger part of their community, and they did so with not only their time, but donations as well.
“We put some of our students on it and had them recruit and make the food drive that we do every year a little bit bigger. They challenged our classes to beat the other classes so there was a friendly battle to see who could get the most food donated, and then we encouraged them to come and help out with these dinners. We’re trying to get more students to come to the ones we do biweekly each month,” Gionfriddo said.
After weeks of collecting food, the students of Nichols brought in over 450 pounds of food goods, not counting the food served during the meal. They also donated 10 pre-made Thanksgiving baskets that will be distributed to families through a local church.
“We teach our students to learn, lead and succeed, and I think part of that is learning to work in the communities they are in but also lead by example,” added Gionfriddo. “By them doing this, they are showing other students that it’s a good thing to go out into the community and give back.”
The benefits of that commitment to service is not lost on chef Dave Hebert, who said that while every meal is important to him, the Thanksgiving meals always holds a special place in his heart, and having the Nichols students on board made it all the more special.
“For me and for us at Nichols College, it’s really important that we show the community that we care and we’re here to support them and help them out. This meal is really a full community teambuilding event,” Hebert said. “It’s such a great feeling, and you leave here with a big smile on your face every time. It’s great to see the kids come out and help out. We’re all working together toward one common goal, and it’s great for everyone.”