Friendship, food at Harvest Christian Ministries

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BENNINGTON — For some, coming to Harvest Christian Ministries' annual Thanksgiving lunch feels less like simple sustenance, and more like a quality meal with people who've become like family.

"I was thinking — `I'm going to have Thanksgiving with my family,'" said Jane Plunkett.

Todd LaBeau, who ate at a table with Plunkett on Thursday afternoon, spoke of the same feeling.

Coming to Harvest's meals often enough, the people there do start to feel like family, he said.

Harvest Christian Ministries has been offering a free Thanksgiving meal for over 40 years. It also serves breakfast seven days a week, and lunch Monday through Friday.

"I couldn't survive without it," Plunkett said of Harvest's meals. "I didn't realize how important it would be to know where you're getting your next meal from."

People take for granted that everyone in America will be fed — but that's not true, she said.

But on Thursday, those who wanted a Thanksgiving meal in Bennington could have it.

Dede Budz, an associate pastor, opened the doors shortly before the scheduled start at 11:30 a.m., as people were waiting outside.

She called the small crowd of about five people inside, to muted cheers. As people arrived, she greeted many by name as they came in the door that sometimes refused to stay closed, letting the chilly, windy air into the small dining room, which sat about 25 people.

Budz informed those gathered of a change this year — volunteers would be waiting on patrons.

The menu included classic Thanksgiving fare: turkey, stuffing, squash, mashed potatoes and coleslaw, along with cranberry sauce, pickles, olives, cheese, rolls, dessert breads and various flavors of pie.

In between pouring drinks, Budz said she usually doesn't keep track of how many people attend the annual Thanksgiving dinner.

But it has been a lot.

"Last year, we flipped the dining room over probably two or three times," she said.

This year, volunteers were scheduled to serve from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Harvest House Soup Kitchen at 101-103 River St.

But, Budz said, "if people come in late, and they don't have a meal, we're serving them."

From the start of the meal on, the sounds of conversation were punctuated by waves to friends, and well-wishes for a happy Thanksgiving. Most of the tables were filled by 11:45 a.m.

"It's really excellent," said Roger Gilman, a frequent patron of Harvest's meals. "They go to great lengths. The people that work here — they're really nice."

Michael Haitkamp comes to Harvest's meals once in a while. A recent transplant from upstate New York, he's only been in the Bennington area for a few months.

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"The food's great," he said. "I'm not a picky eater, though."

Budz remembered that he likes coconut custard, and made sure he would have it for his meal, he said.

Linda Norman, a frequent volunteer with Harvest, attended the meal with her husband, daughter and son-in-law.

"I got so blessed today — I didn't have to cook," she said. "When we come, it's like being with family."

This year, the volunteers cooked in a newly-renovated kitchen.

"Everything's more open," Budz said. "Nothing's closed in cabinets."

The about-five-week renovation earlier this year also included new linoleum, new painting and new kitchen equipment, including a stove.

"We're acclimating," Budz said. "When you're used to working with something for a long time — everything's been comfortable."

Despite the changes to the kitchen, volunteers delivered full plates to patrons quickly.

Glenda Harwood, a volunteer "off and on" for years, was on coleslaw, mashed potatoes and squash, while Dan Boorse took care of stuffing and turkey.

Al Skidmore was on dishes.

"Since we had no breakfast, I'm doing dishes," he said. "We usually do breakfast."

Volunteers accomplish their efforts with "a lot of providing from the lord," Harwood said.

Those who patronize Harvest's meals come from varied situations, Budz said.

"You have homeless people," she said. "You have some people that come in because it's a fellowship. You have some people that come in to spread their food budgets. A lot of people work very hard."

This past summer, volunteers saw a large increase in patrons of the free meals, she said.

"There was a flood of people I'd never seen before," she said.

The difference between meals like those Harvest provides and some other programs, Budz said, is that people coming to Harvest can get a hot meal.

"They can get something hot, something prepared," she said.

Besides Harvest's Thanksgiving lunch, an annual community Thanksgiving Day dinner was also scheduled for 1-3 p.m. at St. Paul's Parish Hall at 398 Bonnet St. in Manchester.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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