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Source: Faith Magazine, November/December 2010

Giving Thanks: The Shimeks (and hundreds of others) add service to their holiday celebration

It started 22 years ago as a simple question between friends: “How will you celebrate the holidays?” The answer sparked an initiative that now meets the emotional and physical needs of nearly 1,000 people each Thanksgiving.

Every Thanksgiving morning, Gannon University men’s basketball coach John Reilly wakes up to the smell of turkey cooking in his oven. His wife, Donna, has spent weeks planning and preparing a feast fit for kings … or 15 hungry basketball players, as the case may be. Coach Reilly and his family will host the players for a home-away-fromhome meal that afternoon, but the day’s first order of business is a tradition of service begun five years ago. He, his coaches and players, and his daughter, Kristen, 14, will join forces with 175 volunteers at Gannon University’s Waldron Campus Center to serve nearly 1,000 free Thanksgiving dinners to anyone looking for a place to celebrate the holiday. Guests will come from all walks of life: They may be homeless, poor, ill, feeble, secluded or lonely. Whatever brings them to the table, they’ll come with gratitude for a meal generously provided by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Northwestern Pennsylvania and their band of good Samaritans.

It was 1988 when Peter Lyons, then-owner of Marketplace Grill, a popular downtown Erie eatery, discussed holiday plans with longtime friend Sister Teresa Marie Bohren, retired Sister of St. Joseph of Northwestern Pennsylvania. At the time, Sister Teresa Marie was on staff at Catholic Charities Counseling and Adoption Services and Peter was serving on the agency’s board of directors. It wasn’t long before the conversation turned to Erie’s in-need population.

“How do our homeless and poor neighbors celebrate Thanksgiving?” they wondered. Driven by the SSJ’s mission and Peter’s fervent desire to donate a festive meal to the community, the friends decided to take action. That year, 140 people enjoyed the first of many Thanksgiving dinners organized by the duo and their colleagues.

Although built around the meal, the event, from the beginning, was about much more than a hot turkey dinner. The sisters and volunteers extended compassion and companionship to people often shunned for their status or situation, as well as hospitality to those who otherwise could not patronize a fine dining establishment. The event provided an opportunity to care for people exactly where they were and to guide them to the services that could meet their needs and help improve their quality of life.

The Thanksgiving dinner falls in line with the Sisters of St. Joseph’s mission of unity of neighbor with neighbor and of neighbor with God. “While serving those in need always has been part of the mission of the sisters, this event brings us in a special way, on a special day, face-to-face with the people we intend to serve,” says Sister Mary Claire Kennedy, SSJ, who is the social justice coordinator for her community. “Many of us don’t get to do as much one-on-one service as we’d like, so it’s especially rewarding to serve this meal.” There is no shortage of need in northwest Pennsylvania. According to the latest U.S. Census report, Erie County’s poverty rate of 14.6 percent exceeds the national rate of 13.2 percent. In addition to direct service to their “dear neighbor,” the sisters are committed to changing unjust systems that cause or perpetuate need in the community.

When the sisters committed to the dinner on a permanent basis in 1991, they expanded their guest list to include all community members – not just the indigent – and added a second seating and home-delivered meals.

“Thanksgiving is the one American holiday that is not commercialized; it is still about family,” says Sister Mary Claire. “Although the majority of our guests come out of need, anyone who desires fellowship is welcome.”

The sisters are not the only group committed to the cause. Thousands of kids and adults have volunteered their time and resources to serve nearly 20,000 people over the last 22 years. Students at Catholic and public schools raise funds through penny drives and dress-down days. Kids served by nonprofit organizations decorate placements used at each seat. Grocers and food service organizations donate meat, produce, dry goods and beverages. Florists supply free decorations; churches provide pies; and hundreds of parishes, story community members and college students volunteer to help guests feel warm and welcome. The event truly could not go on without each and every supporter.

Jay and Cass Shimek began volunteering for the dinner in 2007 as an act of servanthood and to share their blessings with other people. “Our faith is very important to us,” says Jay. “Christ came to serve and this is one way we are following his model.” The Shimeks also hoped the experience would help instill gratitude in their daughters Emma, 12, and Anna, 9.

“Volunteering opens up conversations with our girls about poverty, justice and Christian service,” Jay explains. “I think they are more grateful and realize the blessings they have. It’s certainly made a positive impact on their faith.”

“It’s really fun,” Anna says. “I’m happy to do something for the community and we still have plenty of time for our own Thanksgiving.” Her sister Emma was especially excited to have her own table to wait on last year for the first time.

“It’s nice to talk to people and to hear how special this is to them,” Emma says. “Many wouldn’t have any place to go and give thanks. I hope this meal shows them the joy God can bring in their lives.”

Also critical to the mission is the community’s outpouring of financial gifts. Each year, the Sisters of St. Joseph ask community members and local organizations to support the event. Each year, the community responds generously. Contributions not only cover the costs of preparing, serving and delivering nearly 1,000 meals, but also help meet the needs of Erie’s impoverished population year-round. Last year, the sisters donated $26,500 to 27 social service organizations as a result of the generosity lavished on the effort.

“Those donations give life to our efforts beyond Thanksgiving Day and we are able to help meet residents’ basic emotional and spiritual needs through organizations that serve them year-round,” says Sister Mary Claire.

Last year’s donation back to the community included the “Peter Lyons’ Thanksgiving Giving Back” special gift established to honor Peter’s role in co-launching the dinner in 1988. Although he closed his restaurant in 2009, Peter was closely involved in the inaugural dinner at the event’s new, larger venue – Gannon University’s Waldron Campus Center. With plans to invite clients and residents of more than 64 nonprofit organizations, apartment complexes and assisted living facilities, the sisters require all the cooking and dining space they can get.

This year’s event occurs as the sisters celebrate their 150th anniversary in the Diocese of Erie. In honor of that milestone, the sisters are working with the Second Harvest Food Bank to add a special touch for dinner recipients.

Know someone in need? They’re welcome at the dinner!

The Sisters of St. Joseph invite the community to join them for food and fellowship on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, Nov. 25, at Gannon University’s Waldron Campus Center, 124 W. Seventh St. Meals will be served continuously 11 am -12:30 pm and reservations are not required.

In addition, any person who is homebound can make arrangements to receive a delivered meal by calling 814.836.4100 on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 9 am -11am. A legion of volunteers is ready to deliver meals as far west as Girard and as far east as Harborcreek, from the city of Erie to Summit Township. While volunteer slots are filled each year by the time November arrives, donations of any amount in support of the effort can be mailed to: The Thanksgiving Dinner Fund, Sisters of St. Joseph, 5031 West Ridge Road, Erie, PA, 16506- 1249. For more information, call 814.836.4202.