The art of saying thank-you

Vermont Arts Exchange surprises meal providers with a very public expression of gratitude

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BENNINGTON — Maureen O'Neil was pulling into the driveway of the Mount Anthony Union Middle School at 5:30 on Thursday morning when she saw something that made her stop, get out of her car and take photos.

There, by the driveway, was a large sign spelling out "Thank You!" in 74 decorated plastic meal trays, some of the very trays that O'Neil and some 50 other workers have been filling and distributing to Bennington County students since schools closed for in-person instruction.

The sign was the work of the Vermont Arts Exchange, which invited members of the public to decorate the trays for its "Thank You for Serving Us" project.

"I want to thank them so much," O'Neil, one of two supervisors with food service provider The Abbey Group. "It's awesome, and we're so grateful and appreciative."

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A dozen or so Abbey Group employees, including O'Neil and fellow director Stephanie Gates, and a number of volunteers have been working together to prepare 2,800 meals a day in the MAUMS kitchens. Since the beginning of April, O'Neil said, they're prepared 89,000 breakfasts and lunches for MAU students.

The meals have been distributed by Dufour Tours, which provides transportation services to MAU. Fifteen drivers fan out on routes throughout the county, each one helped by a volunteer from the schools — someone not involved in providing student instruction.

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"We're like a well-oiled machine now," O'Neil said.

Matthew Perry, executive director of the Vermont Arts Exchange, said the sign project was inspired by his routine of meeting the bus each day with his son, a third-grader.

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"I felt that the routine of walking to the bus each morning at 10:30 to get our lunch was very important," Perry said. "Then there were nice surprises of getting to know the bus staff and seeing neighbors and meeting new ones. Every day we received different meals and snacks in nice little plastic trays, so always a surprise to see what we had."

As he learned about what went into the lunch deliveries, "I thought that these backstage workers needed to be acknowledged somehow, plus our trays were piling up in the mud room," he said. "I then thought if they had 3,000 trays a day, that in a week you'd have 15,000. Hopefully, people are recycling and saving them, so why not turn them into an art work?"

He said several families in the area painted, collaged and formed little sculptures with their trays. His wife, Diane, decorated about 15 trays to resemble Dufour school buses. On Wednesday evening, Perry and his 18-year-old son Maxwell installed the sign.

The message was warmly received, O'Neil said. "We're really grateful to them for thinking of us."


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