Middlesex United Way: Middletown Community Thanksgiving Project donations come from heart

Editor’s note: For this week’s column, Middlesex United Way President and CEO Kevin Wilhelm asked communications director Amanda Furlong to write about her experience during the agency’s annual holiday food drive.

Last weekend marked my third time being involved in the Middletown Community Thanksgiving Project, and, simply put, I was blown away. I surely cannot explain all the incredible commitment I witnessed, but I will share a few details.

First: Let me explain what exactly this project is. The Middletown Community Thanksgiving Project is an annual partnership of businesses, nonprofits, civic groups, faith-based groups, schools, municipalities and individuals. We all come together to assemble and distribute more than 1,000 baskets of food for families who otherwise might go without a Thanksgiving meal.

Everything from sides to turkeys is donated over two weekends, and it would not be possible without such an incredible and hard-working partnership.

As part of my duties as the staff liaison to the Young Leaders Society, a group of professionals 40 years old and younger committed to volunteerism and philanthropy, I help lead the Fill-A-Bus portion of this event. Dattco generously donated a school bus (don’t worry — I didn’t drive) for us to use to collect the thousands of canned goods donated.

Last weekend, we quite literally filled the bus twice, with boxes stacked like a game of Tetris to maximize space for donations.

Immediately upon arriving at the Middletown Stop & Shop, we were welcomed by staff with supplies and signage. This was the first year since the implementation of the plastic bag ban, forcing us to change how we collected and stored our donations. Stop & Shop management supplied us with an endless amount of recycled (we went green!) cardboard boxes, which made collecting and storing donations a breeze.

Inside the store, an employee took the time to make a sign that read “Buy one, Donate one” and put a shopping cart full of potatoes at the front of the store, encouraging shoppers to take advantage of the promotion. This whole display was created without us even asking, and truly demonstrated how involved and committed the entire store was.

A slew of volunteers came out over both days this past weekend, new and old, and we could not have done it without them. The Knights of Valhalla Auto Club, Boy Scouts of America, and fellow Young Leaders Society members all came through with large numbers.

We were especially pleased to have the help of several other individuals, who learned of the food drive from word of mouth, as well as from this wonderful newspaper, who came and helped collect. I would be remiss, however, if I did not give a special shout out to our MVP volunteer, Tracy.

Tracy was hoping to get some shopping done at Marshalls Sunday morning, but was shocked to find they did not open up until 11:30 a.m. To kill time, she decided to get some grocery shopping done while she waited. Tracy saw the volunteers, took a flyer, and came out of the store with a shopping bag full of miscellaneous donations.

Instead of leaving the donation with the volunteers in front of the store, she insisted on bringing her items directly to the bus. Tracy saw a volunteer struggling to keep up with the seemingly neverending flow of donations, so she lent a hand.

And when I say lent a hand, I really mean stopped everything she was doing and took an all-hands-on-deck approach. Tracy implemented a sorting system to expedite packing, and made it her mission to load the bus with donations even faster than they were coming in.

Tracy, who had no intention of volunteering at all when she left to go shopping, spent the next three hours helping out without so much as a break. She is a person who I will never forget, and is a wonderful example of the kind, compassionate residents Middletown is filled with.

I also want to thank the hundreds of donors we had the pleasure of meeting over the weekend. Some donors were people who missed us at the entrance, but saw that we were collecting donations, and gave some of their own groceries for the food drive. Throughout the weekend, I watched countless people who went into the store to pick up two or three items for themselves but returned with three, four, even five bags of food for the Thanksgiving Project, thanking us for braving the cold for a good cause.

On several occasions, children came out of the store with a parent by their side, and wanted to hand the donation themselves. The parent would proudly look on as their child exemplified generosity and community.

The most memorable donors were those who were former recipients themselves, who would share stories of hard times they have experienced, explaining that they had signed up for a basket in previous years. Without fail, every former recipient turned donor would say something to the effect of “someone helped me when I needed it, so I am happy now to be able to give back.”

Without these volunteers, donors, and donations, this drive quite literally would be impossible, so I thank each and every one of you. Every year, I feel so lucky that I get to witness the compassion and gratitude our community members have through this project.