TORRINGTON — The holidays and their traditions are a little different for everyone this year, and soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters, where the coronavirus is a big concern, are facing many challenges. But those who run these organizations are still providing meals and relying on the generosity of their communities to keep the spirit of giving alive.
“We’re all managing to continue the programs to help our neighbors in need,” said Deirdre DiCara, executive director of Friends in Service for Humanity, Torrington’s homeless shelter and food pantry. “We just have to be a little creative. But we have not closed our doors throughout this pandemic, and we will continue to do our work. It’s important for people to know that.”
In the past, FISH has held its Thanksgiving dinner for shelter residents on the Tuesday preceding the holiday, allowing those with families to spend Thursday with them. This year, no one is going anywhere, so the turkey dinner will be served on Thanksgiving Day. They’re already getting ready, DiCara said.
“We got a wonderful delivery of turkeys on Tuesday, and we’re starting our vegetables,” she said. “Folks on Thanksgiving would be going out on a pass to be with their friends or family, but there’s been no passes since March. We have to keep our residents safe.”
Another tradition for FISH is distributing Thanksgiving food to hundreds of families in greater Torrington. Usually people waited in line, walked up and chose their own vegetables and trimmings, which were laid out on pallets in the FISH parking lot. This year, the event was a drive-through distribution, with volunteers and staff putting bags of food into the trunks of people’s cars.
“We packed the bags ahead of time,” DiCara said. “We just had a tremendous influx of great generosity from the community to make that happen.”
At Friendly Hands Food Bank on King Street, Executive Director Karen Thomas and her staff distributed more than 500 meals Saturday, and delivered 75 complete dinners to residents living in senior housing. “We covered a lot of ground, and that’s because the community helped us,” she said.
Early in the shutdown in response to the coronavirus, meat was hard to find in the stores, and DiCara used her own funds to buy it for the shelter kitchen. The ongoing supply of fresh food, DiCara said, has been affected by this year’s growing season.
“We usually get lots of fresh food from the Connecticut Food Bank, but because of a shortage of those and the need for them, we had to purchase our own this year,” she said. “But we put (the need) out on social media, and the community came through. I also used some grants we received to buy food.
“We’re in our one month of tremendous abundance right now, but after the holidays, we’re out of food completely,” she said. “The need of the hungry is year-round. Donations are always needed.”
Thomas agreed. “In January, our shelves are empty,” she said. “We need to keep the donations coming in, because after Thanksgiving and Christmas, people still have to eat. People are still struggling financially to feed their families.”
“Food donations are always needed, perishable and nonperishable, frozen, fresh, anything at all including dairy,” Thomas said. “We’re also taking pet food, for people who can’t afford to feed themselves, let alone their pets.”
The Community Soup Kitchen of Torrington, located in the basement of Trinity Church on Prospect Street, is facing a shortage of a different kind — containers. Because the kitchen provides their meals as takeout to keep the spread of the virus in check, Director Lisa Hageman can’t find enough containers to go around.
“Food-wise I’m OK for right now,” Hageman said. “We can’t keep enough of the snacks and to-go containers, napkins, plastic silverware, cups for juice. That’s an expense I’ve never had in the soup kitchen before.
“People are bringing us food on a regular basis,” she said. “But we need supplies to give the food out. It’s not something we expected to have a problem with.
“What broke the camel’s back for me this year is that we weren’t able to hold any of our usual fundraisers to have money for supplies,” Hageman said. “The Empty Bowls dinner, the Rock the Kitchen drive, food drives at Stop & Shop … we didn’t have any of that. I’m hoping we’ll have a nice Christmas and we’ll be able to fill our shelves.”
The soup kitchen is open and serving on Thanksgiving Day, Hageman said.
Getting ready for Christmas
As soon as Thanksgiving is over, the three organizations turn their focus to Christmas and providing as much cheer as they can to the families and individuals they serve.
At Friendly Hands, Thomas is collecting gifts and monetary donations for her annual Adopt-A-Family program. Residents can adopt an individual child or a family and provide gifts for them.
“You can call us starting Nov. 30 to adopt a child or children, and all the information is on our website,” she said. “We’re also accepting new, unwrapped toys, and hams for Christmas. And of course donations of any kind for the food bank.”
At FISH, DiCara also holds an Adopt-A-Family program. “The challenge this year is that our area churches usually help with that, but congregations aren’t meeting regularly,” she said. “So we have had to find new sponsors for our families. People can call us if they want to adopt someone, and we’ll connect them with the dreams of a child within a family.”
She’s also looking for donations of homemade cookies.
“I can’t hold my Cocoa and Cookie Party with Santa this year, because of the coronavirus,” she said. “But I love serving homemade cookies to our shelter residents, so if any holiday bakers want to connect with me, I’d like to have homemade cookies for them.”
The shelter held its annual Rally to End Hunger and Homelessness with a coat drive, with distribution days held Nov. 20-21. “We collected more than 600 warm outerwear items for our neighbors in need,” DiCara said. “We partnered this year with Joe Mazzarella at Joseph’s House and the majority of those have already been distributed. What’s left will be brought to other sites.”
To donate to FISH or for more information, visit www.fishnwct.org or call 860-482-7300. To donate to the Community Soup Kitchen, visit www.torringtonsoupkitchen.com or call 860- 482-0130. To donate to Friendly Hands Food Bank, visit https://friendlyhandsfoodbanknwct.org or call 860-482-3338.