2013-11-08 / Front Page

Project Pilgrim about to turn 15

Community Harvest plans another Thanksgiving event
By Alex Acquisto
Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — The 15th annual Project Pilgrim, hosted by the nonprofit organization Community Harvest, will take place on Thanksgiving Day at St. Martha’s Church.

While it offers a meal to those in Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel who might not otherwise have the means to cook on Thanksgiving Day, Project Pilgrim is also a community-gathering event open to anyone who wishes to join.

Mario Barros, Kennebunk resident and head chef for Project Pilgrim for the past eight years, said Project Pilgrim is not just aimed at a specific sector of the community.

“You get a wide cross-section of people,” Barros said, “some folks who don’t have the means, monetarily, to cook themselves a meal, some who work here and have family somewhere else, some folks who don’t have family anywhere nearby at all and just want a chance to have a Thanksgiving dinner with other nice people, and some who just like the company.”

The menu is very similar every year, with all of the basic Thanksgiving fixings: turkey, ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and a few other items.

A fresh garden salad accompanies the meal, along with desserts such as pies that are donated from local establishments.

Community Harvest was formed by a collaborative effort 15 years ago, in 1998. Included in that collaboration was Barros. Project Pilgrim was the nonprofit’s flagship venture.

Secretary Erin Smith was a sophomore in high school when she began volunteering at Project Pilgrim in 1999.

Of Project Pilgrim’s inception, Smith said, “A group of people had come together and recognized that there weren’t really a lot of options (nonprofits) when it came to food. There was no soup kitchen at that time, and the closest food pantry was in Biddeford, which were surprising but real issues.”

The group decided to start a Thanksgiving meal, Smith said, in addition to other events, such as the Noel Christmas dinner, and a monthly community meal called Harvest Cafe.

Community Harvest also offers something known as the Emergency Community Assistance program, which partners with other local organizations for those who are in dire need of funds. “If someone has an unexpected medical bill and they’re behind in their rent, for example,” Smith said. “We try to bill ourselves almost as a last resort. We try to fill in the areas where other agencies can’t support them.”

From the get-go, said Barros, he and other community collaborators wanted the food that was served at Project Pilgrim to be as fresh as possible, for health reasons, but also to make sure that the meal tastes like a good, old-fashioned Thanksgiving dinner.

“People appreciate that no matter what their station is,” Barros said.

For this year’s Project Pilgrim, organizers are planning for attendance of 250 to 350 people.

That includes not only those who eat at St. Martha’s, but also the drivers who provide the meals for Meals on Wheels, those they distribute to, as well as take-out dinners.

Meals on Wheels are taken to elderly who aren’t able to leave their homes, as well as to the local police and fire departments for those on duty during the holiday.

Similarly, if someone just wants a Thanksgiving meal, but doesn’t wish to eat it at St. Martha’s, they are welcome to treat it as a carryout meal.

The leftovers from Project Pilgrim are donated to Community Harvest’s monthly community meals.

Volunteers for the event run the gamut, said Barros, whose 18-year-old daughter, Avery, has been helping since she was 4.

“Most high school kids who come to volunteer, they come as freshman or sophomores to get service time, but most end up coming back for the next few years because it turns out to be something they really enjoy,” Barros said.

Barros, who, as head chef, runs the kitchen, likes to promote autonomy and creativity among those who volunteer.

“They look to me for the planning and the recipes, but more and more I like for the volunteers who come to do more than feel like they’re taking orders,” Barros said. “I’ll let other people cook. If someone is cooking mashed potatoes, for example, and they ask me what to put in them, I’ll ask, ‘What does your family like? How do you like them? If your family likes them a certain way, chances are everyone else will, too.

“It makes them feel like they’re really sharing and doing more than just showing up. They are working as hard as I am. They’re giving up time with their families to volunteer.”

This year, with Community Harvest’s revamped website, volunteers are able to fill out forms online and pick a time slot. Those who wish to attend as guests can call Community Harvest’s phone number; however, showing up at the door is fine, too, said Smith.

“The whole purpose of what we do is to bring other people together,” Smith said. “Whether you’re homeless or can’t afford Thanksgiving, or whether your family is going to be out of town, we want to make sure people have a nice place to go where they can get a delicious meal. And we get new faces every year. That’s our goal, to open this up to anybody.”

For more information, visit www.communityharvestonline.org.

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