Volunteers from Rise serve a sit-down Thanksgiving dinner to the guests in the hall of St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown. Mary Stadnyk photo
Volunteers from Rise serve a sit-down Thanksgiving dinner to the guests in the hall of St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown. Mary Stadnyk photo

Shirley Legge genuinely enjoyed the festive environment that surrounded her.

Legge was one of more than 200 guests who attended the Thanksgiving dinner that was served in the hall of St. Anthony of Padua Parish, the evening of Nov. 26. For the second year, the Hightstown parish opened its doors on the Tuesday of Thanksgiving week and was a place of welcome to residents of Hightstown and neighboring towns who otherwise might not have the means for celebrating the national holiday.

“This is all about bringing the community together” – people of all faiths and walks of life coming together and being of service to one another, according to organizer, Gail Zelenak. She explained that the dinner was hosted by Rise Community Services Partnership, an organization that helps residents from Hightstown, East Windsor and other surrounding towns with social services including food, clothing, household items and emergency monetary assistance. The residents may be homeless, among the working poor, widowed, recent arrivals to the country or lonely and in need of fellowship.

Among the services Rise has provided in the past 10 years since the organization opened its food pantry are serving meals twice a week on Monday and Thursday in the town’s First United Methodist Church. However, with Thanksgiving always occurring on a Thursday and Rise staff and volunteers are unable to serve meals that day, Zelenak said it was decided that Rise would host the dinner on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

“We call our dinner ‘Thankful Tuesday,’” she said with a smile.

Zelenak recalled that the first Rise’s first Thanksgiving dinner drew about 50 people. But over the years, the number has nearly quadrupled and as a result, larger quarters were needed. Last year, the site was moved when St. Anthony of Padua Parish offered the use of its spacious gymnasium and fully-equipped kitchen. She added how grateful she is to the Rise staff and volunteers for their community-minded spirit, then extended appreciation to the various businesses for their generous donations of food.

Once guests arrived for the Nov. 26 dinner and settled at their tables, which were decorated with white linen tablecloths, autumn florals and a life-sized Hershey Kiss placed on each Thanksgiving-themed plate, they were welcomed by Father Oscar Sumanga, St. Anthony of Padua Parish pastor, who offered grace.

Since arriving as pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in July, Father Sumanga said he was pleased to see the churches of various faith traditions in the area working together to share resources, address concerns and participate in an organization like Rise, especially “since we are all serving the same community.”

Of the Thanksgiving dinner, he added he was happy to have St. Anthony of Padua serve as the host church and saw it as a way to give the guests who are in difficult situations some hope.

As Nora Conte, a member of St. John the Baptist Parish, Allentown, and more than three-year Rise volunteer observed the evening’s festivities that featured a live band, activities for children and the presence of some 45 Rise volunteers who were either working in the kitchen or serving the dinners, she said, “This is so beautiful … We’re coming together to make a family within the community. We don’t need to have blood relations in order to be a family.”

Along with being an active parishioner in St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Mike Wilson said he sees his volunteering with Rise as a way to “serve God by helping people who are without and a way for me to give thanks for all that I have.”

Guests like Legge said she appreciates the outreach that churches in her community and organizations like Rise provide year-round to people in need. And it’s even more heartening when they extend their outreach and host a special event like the Thanksgiving dinner.

“It’s a good idea,” she said of the dinner, “and at the same time, I get to see my friends.”