Forest Park, like any village, has its share of infighting. Take a look at the village-related Facebook groups, and you’ll get a sense of the divisiveness and disagreements that pop up on a regular basis.
But despite all that, when it comes down to it, the town has a big heart and a history of coming together and helping its residents. That was apparent on Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving, during the Community Center Food Pantry’s annual Thanksgiving meal delivery.
Volunteers showed up at 9 a.m., but days had already been spent setting up empty boxes and filling them with food to donate.
According to Community Center Director Karen Dylewski, this year over 140 turkeys and meals were delivered. The turkeys, buns and pies are purchased from Ed’s Way with donated money, and the rest of the boxes are assembled from food contributions to the food pantry.
Each resident or family on the list received a turkey and a box of food for meal prep. These boxes are heavy. Carry one up three flights of stairs and you’ll be winded. Add in a turkey that you hold in one hand while hoisting the box on one hip, and it’s almost impossible by yourself.
Good thing I had my 16-year-old daughter with me.
The operation at the Community Center was efficiently run, thanks to the regular volunteers who have been doing this for years: Dylewski, Commissioner Joe Byrnes and his wife Sandy, Mike Thompson from the American Legion. There were other regular volunteers too, who have been doing this for as long as she can remember, said Dylewski.
“Are you here to deliver turkeys?” asked Sandy when I showed up.
“I’m here to do whatever needs to be done,” I answered. I was just there to write a story, but since I was out and about, I might as well participate, I thought.
“I’ll start you out with two addresses.” Sandy handed me two index cars with names and addresses on them. My daughter and I carried two very heavy boxes filled with canned vegetables, rice packets, buns and other food to help create a Thanksgiving meal – as well as two turkeys – to the car and filled the trunk.
We delivered the two boxes and turkeys, then headed back to the Community Center. It was easier the second time around because Forest Park firefighters and paramedics were there to load up our cars. They show up every year.
“They can’t deliver the food because they might have to go out on a call,” said Dylewski.
This year the volunteers from the fire department were Michael Kinder, Humberto Soto, Aaron Hannan, Andrew Weber, Phil Damato and paramedics Richard Lovett and Matthew Bakke.
We headed out again, this time to a multi-unit building with some other volunteers including Kristen Lyons. There were multiple people receiving meals there, and we filled shopping carts provided by the building and used elevators to bring the food up.
On the third floor, I spent a long time talking to one of the residents, a witty and intelligent woman. She told me about her “sputnik,” a Ninja food cooker that air fries, pressure cooks and does a lot of other kitchen-related stuff. She affectionately named it after the Soviet satellite.
“That turkey won’t fit in my sputnik, though,” she said. “I’ll have to do it in the oven again. You know what I did last year? They brought me a turkey, and it was too much for just me. So I cooked it with sweet potatoes and green beans and other side dishes. And I plated it up and borrowed the shopping carts from downstairs and delivered dinner to all the people here in the building who didn’t have anywhere to go on Thanksgiving.”
She also told me she’s a cancer survivor.
“It’s a word I’ve had to add to my vocabulary,” she said. “Survivor. But I’ve been told that’s what I am. Every day is a bonus day. I feel lucky every morning when I open my eyes.”
When I leave, I feel an unexpected sadness. I was too warm, standing in the overheated hallway, and as a rule I don’t enjoy small talk. But she invited me in to see her multi-cooker. She was funny and wise, and a great conversationalist. The kind of person I will miss after meeting only once.
Sometimes I think of words that I wish existed. On Wednesday, I wished there was a word that meant “to recognize somebody even though you’re meeting them for the first time ever.”
Back at the Community Center, the deliveries were done. A huge spread of food had been laid out on several long tables, including salad and Italian beef sandwiches and buffalo chicken dip and so much more.
“It’s a tradition. All the volunteers sit down and eat.” Karen nodded toward the table. “And there’s a fridge over there with soda. Help yourself.”
I told her I had to go to work.
She insisted but acquiesced when she realized I really did have to go. But not before filling up my arms – and my daughter’s arms – with snacks.
Joe Byrnes saw me leaving. “You need to sit down and eat,” he said. Like Dylewski, he told me it’s a tradition.
“Every day is a gift,” said the woman I talked to outside her apartment. And that day certainly was.
Join the Howard Mohr Community Center on Dec. 23 at 9 a.m. to help deliver Christmas baskets to residents. In addition to food, Dylewski and her team will be bringing gifts to kids. Mayor Rory Hoskins is holding a toy drive on Dec. 12 from 6 to 10 p.m. at the American Legion, 500 Circle Ave. to collect presents for this purpose. Bring an unwrapped and new gift for kids ages 3 to 16 or a gift card for youth aged 11 to 16. Food and soft drinks will be provided. Gifts and cards can also be dropped off at the Community Center at 7640 Jackson Blvd.