Freedom from want

Jimmy DiMattia reaches for a can of cranberries. — Photo by Michael Cummo

“They’re here! Hooray for our boys!” Cheers exploded from the patient crowd outside of The First Baptist Church Parish House on Friday afternoon as MVRHS Football team members arrived in proud procession to help hand out Thanksgiving dinners to Martha’s Vineyard families in need.

“That’s our Island,” one grateful recipient said. “Our ties are unbreakable, even when life feels insurmountable.”

When Norman Rockwell painted Freedom From Want, his iconic tableau of an American family crowded around the white-draped table brimming with plenty, the Thanksgiving meal of golden turkey and all its sumptuous trimmings became grafted upon our cultural definition of the uniquely American holiday. Yet for many families around the country, and hundreds of our own Island community, the requisite Thanksgiving feast would be missing from their family’s picture if not for Serving Hands and Family to Family food distribution outreach.

Betty Burton the oordinator for the past 11 years, leads a generous team of volunteers to manage a thousand details of fundraising, ordering, organizing, storage, delivery, and distributing hefty 50-plus pound bags of ingredients to Vineyard families.

“There is so much that goes on behind the scenes before the people walk in to collect their food, and this year we served nearly 200 individuals with produce and meat that will feed 600,” Burton explained. “Each person walked away with an 11-12 pound turkey, stuffing mix, sweet and russet potatoes, apples, oranges, canned pumpkin and cranberry sauce, two butternut squashes, parsnips, cabbage, and lots of beautiful Island kale.”

The bounty of food is delivered to the grateful Serving Hands pantry through direct donations from farms, the Greater Boston Food Bank, Cronig’s, Reliable Market, and active Island fundraising efforts. “Whippoorwill Farm and Morning Glory Farm each gave us 500 pounds of potatoes, gleaned by The Island Grown Gleaners, not to mention 700 pounds of butternut squash, multicolored carrots and kale. I think everyone walked out with kale this year!”

As Ms. Burton describes the efforts made by her team to make this giving possible, she is energetic and emotional. “You have to grow a different kind of heart,” she said of her own motivation to spearhead Serving Hands, “you never know where life will take you, and you may end up needing these services somewhere along the way. This is what we need to do for our neighbors, our community.”

Ms. Burton describes the Family to Family holiday dinner donation effort as a “truly beautiful community happening –– everyone is friendly, on both sides of the line, there is no shame in needing help.”

She saw a rise in need in response to the financial crisis of 2008-09. “We have skilled people, professionals, who got laid off at that time and because of their age they haven’t been able to bounce back and find new positions,” she said.

While much of the country continues to face economic hardship, many of the meal recipients are unique to the Vineyard economy. “We have the seasonal jobless, coming off of summer and now just trying to make it by,” she said. “We have the disabled and the elderly, I especially think of them, because so many have health costs and limited transport… this time of year makes it hard to have family or grandchildren over for a holiday dinner.”
Trying to get as much food into as many hands as possible, Ms. Burton and her team of volunteers packed pounds of produce and meat into reusable bags, waiting to serve the families who could brave the biting cold. While waiting to enter, an Oak Bluffs resident said, “This is who we are as an Island, it’s all about unity. There would be no Thanksgiving at my house without this generosity.”
Burton explained the strict income guidelines and eligibility required to participate in the service, “but I actually recognize and know most of these families now, so while we are required to have a sign-in sheet, we do everything we can to erase that stigma. Anyone who thinks someone is cheating the system by coming here, I say, would you want to come down and stand in line? It’s not easy. We do everything to make it feel like family… because it is.”
While generous donations come from the farms and Island grocers, it is the individual giving which serves as the cornerstone of this holiday meal effort. “It’s not corporate, it’s direct, your family buys another family a meal” Ms. Burton said. “And this is the time: we only do the fundraising once a year and I need to meet the needs for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter right now.”

Ms. Burton said she is often given checks from people while she is out doing errands, but unfortunately “this year we are a bit behind for our goals.”
She said that out of all the essentials donated to make Friday a success, perhaps the most endearing were from the First Baptist Preschool housed above the Serving Hands food pantry. “The older preschoolers painted the hands of the younger children and handprinted small white paper bags, each filled with potatoes they had actually grown in their garden,” she said. “See? The whole thing just encompasses what Thanksgiving is about.”
While Ms. Burton waits for an angel donor to step up and build a new facility to house vital community outreach conducted by the closely associated Center For Living and future Serving Hands food distribution, she is “extremely grateful to The First Baptist Church as well as the drivers for Island Grown who delivered food this week to dozens of up-Island families who had no way of making it down to Vineyard Haven.”
“Thanks to all our friends and neighbors, hundreds of our Island community will be grateful this Thanksgiving,” remarked a volunteer standing at the door on Friday. When Ms. Burton closed the doors by 4 pm she said, “It’s empty. We have three cases of vegetarian beans left. That’s it. We gave it all.”
Digesting the ubiquitous turkey dinner on Thursday will be easier knowing the spirit of our Vineyard community reigned on Friday, thanks to Serving Hands and all its supporters, to remind us all what the holiday is truly about.

If you would like to contribute to Serving Hands and Family to Family send a check to Vineyard Committee on Hunger, PO BOX 4685, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.

Correction: The photo caption in an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the distribution point as the Island Food Pantry. The Family to Family food distribution took place at the First Baptist Church.