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Volunteers prepare for annual dinner

By Michelle Symington

MetroWest Reminder Assistant Editor

WEST SPRINGFIELD Over the next few weeks, local residents will come together as volunteers to prepare for the 24th Phil Coburn Thanksgiving Dinner.

From donating turkeys and hams to volunteering their time to peel vegetables, prepare fruit baskets and serve dinner, local residents will come together to prepare a meal for over 1,000 of their neighbors on Thanksgiving.

Barbara Amsden, who co-chairs the event with her husband, Chick, explained that the two of them would deliver baskets to people in need or who were alone on the holiday prior to creating the dinner.

She said that in her own church, she saw many people whose kids had grown and moved away.

"We thought it was just not right," she said. "It is a family day, so we went to the Parish Association and they agreed to sponsor the dinner."

For the first year of the Phil Coburn Thanksgiving Dinner, The Amsdens and a number of other volunteers served 120 people.

"We were thrilled with that," Amsden said. "We had no clue how many [to expect] and every year it has gotten bigger and bigger."

She explained that it took a few years to convince people that the dinner has nothing to do with financial need.

"You don't have to be rich or poor," she said, adding that many families attend. "It is about community."

According to Amsden, a cross section of people attend the annual dinner including families, caregivers who bring those whom they are caring for, people who are alone for the holidays and volunteers with their families.

She said that the dinner is open to Agawam residents as well and she does not care who comes "as long as they enjoy themselves."

One person who brings her 91-year-old mother to the dinner each year called Amsden recently to tell her that it took three years to convince her to attend the dinner. According to Amsden, the woman told her that her mother was excited when she arrived at St. Thomas for the dinner because she saw people she had not seen in years.

Amsden said that she can not pinpoint the exact number of people who were served last year, but believes it was over 1,100. In addition to the dinners served at the hall, the volunteers delivered about 600 takeout meals to residents of West Springfield and Agawam.

Over 200 volunteers spend a portion of their holiday delivering meals to those residents who cannot make it to the dinner,

"There are so many people in town who are just so wonderful,"Amsden said.

In addition to delivering meals, some volunteers offer rides to members of the community who need one. They are picked up at the West Springfield Police Department sub-station.

In the weeks before the dinner, Amsden seeks a number of donations. Last year, she cooked 43 turkeys as well as ham, vegetables, stuffing and other traditional Thanksgiving foods.

"We are always looking for people to donate turkeys and hams," she said. "The rest we purchase."

She explained that she used to purchase the vegetables from Angelo's, and now his son, Bill Denucci, has a place in Northampton where she will go to purchase all of the fruits and vegetables. She said that the quality of produce he carries is "so good."

A farmer from Enfield has donated the butternut squash and Lapinski's Farm in West Springfield has donated the pumpkins and corn stalks to decorate the hall for the event.

Most of the cooking is completed in the West Springfield High School kitchen, where Amsden worked for years.

"The School Department is very nice to us," she said.

She explained that they begin to cook the turkeys prior to the holiday and freeze the meat after separating it from the bones.

She said that because preparation begins about a week before the actual dinner, she is in need of the turkey donations now.

She has one volunteer, Kevin Mills, a professional chef, who she allows to take over the kitchen on Thanksgiving.

"He does a great job," she said, adding that he has vowed to never work on Thanksgiving so he can volunteer for the annual community dinner.

In addition to Mills, many other volunteers spend time in the kitchen peeling vegetables and preparing the meal the day before the dinner.

"We have very faithful, good volunteers," Amsden said. "Everyone just has a good time. They work so hard but they love it. They feel they are contributing something to the community."

According to Amsden, the dinner has never run in the red, it has always run in the black.

She added, however, that she is aware that donors have been hit "with everything" this year.

"I know that businesses are fed up by everybody asking," she said. "The need is more this year."

Last year, the cost for the dinner was $2,600. Amsden said that she spends the money on items such as plants, fruit, paper goods, cranberry sauce, items for the hors d'oeuvres table and other odds and ends.

In addition to the holiday meal, those who attend also receive a fruit basket that is put together by many young volunteers at St. Thomas School. A dessert table, that consists of many items donated by volunteers is also part of the annual dinner.

Those who cannot stay at the dinner can bring a container and receive takeout as well.

Anyone interested in donating a turkey or ham for the meal can do so by contacting Amsden at 733-8682. She said that she will pick up a turkey or donors can bring them to her.

She said that she has found turkeys all wrapped up on her front porch, back porch and even in her driveway.

Any Agawam resident who would like to volunteer to deliver meals can call Carol Treganowan at 786-1912. Interested delivery volunteers in West Springfield can call Rose Desrosiers at 734-9853.

Any resident who would like a meal delivered to their home can call Diane Arnold at the West Springfield Senior Center at 739-0247.

Monetary donations can be sent to the West Springfield Parish Association c/o Gay Morris, 48 Kelly Drive, West Springfield, MA 01089.

The annual dinner takes place at St. Thomas Church, located at 75 Pine Street from 12 - 2 p.m. There is no charge for the meal.