(This story was first published in the Nov. 27, 2013 edition of the Standard.)
Lauren Wilder stands in the kitchen at the North Universalist Chapel Society during last year’s Hand in Hand Thanksgiving Dinner.
Rick Russell Photo
By Katy Savage, Standard Staff
Some old and some young, some wealthy and some not-so-wealthy, some with children and others with friends, sat side by side at long rows of tables on the first floor of the North Universalist Chapel Society last Thursday. Linens and water pitchers were on every table and volunteer waitresses were serving food.
Lauren Wilder was in the kitchen slicing fresh ham while the smell of mashed potatoes and squash wafted on the stove behind her.
Wilder was preparing to serve 40-80 people, free of charge, just like she’s done every week for the past 10 years.
“It’s great when you see someone come in and they don’t know anybody or they just kind of hang out, be quiet and all of a sudden they’re talking to somebody new who’s been here their whole life but they just never took the time,” Wilder said.
Hand in Hand started when Wilder moved from California to Vermont almost a decade ago. She noticed the small state lacked communication and she feared neighbors didn’t know each other like they used to when she was a child visiting family in Bridgewater.
“We had so many people called the flatlanders and second-home owners and people just automatically were separated,” she said. “I said, ‘Wait a minute.’” There were few community events where people could get to know each other without spending money.
“I was trying to think what is it, what could I do to bring people closer together, and I said, ‘Ah-ha,’” Wilder said.
Her dinner is available to anyone, regardless of class or income.
“That was my deal, trying to get people connected, not just in this community, but all communities, so everybody has a place in it,” she said.
The people who go — go again and again and the community meal brings the most unlikely people together.
Wilder remembers the late Carroll Earle coming in and sitting beside a wealthy person in town one evening. “They wouldn’t ever talk to each other because of preconceived notions,” Wilder said. The two ended up being friends.
“That is the reason why,” Wilder said. “That one thing makes it worth while for everybody. That’s the thing; get to know your neighbors in your community.”
Wilder plans a different theme and different menu each week. Last week, the theme was Happy Birthday Stan Musial, complete with a birthday cake for the baseball player who died last January. There is usually live music and poetry readings to end the evening.
“It’s a beautiful way to get to know people,” said Nancy Peterson, who was preparing the salad with Wilder’s green avocado sauce.
She’s been a volunteer from the start.
“You see people when they come in very shy at the first time,” Peterson said. “It ends up people who do come here and live here engage people in conversation. It’s just a natural response so nobody’s really left out.”
Some bring others who may be isolated.
“This is really a small town and somehow this dinner brings as many people together as I’ve ever seen,” Peterson said.
The volunteers start cooking at 10 a.m. and don’t sit down until everybody is served and the dishes are clean.
“It’s a lot of work,” Peterson said. “I will say that. When I go home I am really tired. But it’s worth it. You see other people become included.”
On Thursday, missionaries from Utah clapped their hands on the counters while Wilder joined in with them. Wilder invites every volunteer, no matter how young into her kitchen. If they’re tall enough to see the stove, they can serve the food.
“You got to be doing something right when your volunteers stick out with you for 10 years,” she said. “It’s like family. You get to know each other. People come from different backgrounds, but in here, it’s different.”
Even in tough times, Wilder doesn’t stop giving.
“She just has a big personality. She’s not afraid to get out there and ask people for stuff,” said Barb Reed, a volunteer who washed the dishes.
When there was no water in the village during Tropical Storm Irene, Wilder made a meal for about 300 people. She used the kitchen at the Bridgewater Mill Mall to prepare food during the day and then brought it to the Woodstock Green.
“A lot of people don’t know the good work she does,” Reed said.
Wilder now lives in Bridgewater. Hand in Hand also hosts poetry classes in Killington and art classes on weekends.
“When you see the connections that’s happening, it just seems like that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” Wilder said. “It’s such a simple thing, but we have lost sight of it so much.”
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