The smell of chili wafting through Mary Morrisson Elementary School had reached the hallway by mid-morning, prompting peeks into the break room from anxious staff.
They'd been gearing up all week in anticipation of the school's first ever chili cook-off - one of a variety of fundraisers held behind the scenes throughout the year at Mary Morrisson and other Groton schools to benefit a worthy cause.
"This is part of teaching," said school psychologist Marijean Conrad, who organized the event. "We thought it would be a fun way to raise a little money. This time of year there is quite a need. It looks like there is more food here than we could ever eat."
A donation to the Groton Food Locker enabled staff to taste and vote for their favorite homemade chili - prepared by staff. The winner, along with bragging rights, was to have their name engraved on a silver platter.
The Crock-Pots were lined up side-by-side in the break room, marked with names that included "Not Your Mama's" and "Super Bowl Kickin." Cornbread and water were on hand.
Contributors included teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, the school cook, nurse and secretary. The tasters came in staggered waves as time allowed.
Chili Chef Karen Elderkin, who doubles as the school's speech and language pathologist, said she wasn't surprised by the large turnout.
"We really have strong community ties here," she said. "We like to make that connection - it's important to us."
In addition to chili, staff also made a variety of pies. Raffle tickets were sold and pies were later distributed to winners.
"It's nice to see the school spirit coming out," said Collin Powers, a kindergarten teacher who prepared a ginger and peach pie.
School secretary Ruth Breau, who made the "Bodacious Bean-anza Chili," said the pre-K through fifth-grade school of about 359 is largely made up of children from military families, which equates to a high percentage of turnover,
But is also means very involved parents, she said, which perhaps helps to create better connections with staff.
Marge Fondulas, director of Groton Human Services, which runs the Groton Food Locker, said the Mary Morrisson staff was able to raise $535 through the appreciated "very worthwhile event."
"Throughout the year I'd say with very few exceptions many of the schools in Groton have food drives or other events that benefit the food locker," Fondulas said. "The teachers and administrators, I think, are very intent on educating the children about the resources in the community and the fact there are people who are struggling and need help. The result has been very generous donations."
Recently, the Ella T. Grasso Southeastern Technical High School's Interact Club delivered 20 cases of food to the food locker and more to the Gemma Moran United Way Food Locker in New London. Fondulas said a pick-up from a food collection at Charles Barnum Elementary School was also planned.
Over the past three years, Fondulas said there has been an increase in the demand for emergency food because of the economy.
" It seems as if there is a never ending litany of expenses people are trying to juggle," Fondulas said. "Food obviously is a necessity. Sometimes there is not enough money left after rent is paid. I never fail to be amazed at the generosity of the community - whether it's a church, individual or schools."
Mary Morrisson Principal Monica S. Franzone said the chili cook-off is a small example of the kind of things the school participates in on an annual basis.
Faculty and staff each year vote on a service project and in past years the school has raised $1,000 for Pennies for Peace and $700 for Mystic Area Shelter and Hospitality.
"It's important to think about what we can do for others," Franzone said. "It's nice to give back. This is a great show of support."