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Mystic — Inside St. Mark's Episcopal Church Thursday afternoon, residents chatted among themselves at tables decorated with cornucopia and orange placemats as they anticipated the church's annual meal.
"Happy Thanksgiving," cheered Grace Vandal, the event organizer, standing in front of the room near a serving table filled with steaming platters of turkey, stuffing, vegetables and mashed potatoes.
"Happy Thanksgiving," about 70 residents enthusiastically responded amid cheers and applause.
St. Mark's Church has been holding Thanksgiving dinner for more than 25 years. This year, volunteers prepared 120 meals for the 1 p.m. sit-down dinner and delivered 163 meals to the local area beginning at 10 a.m., said Vandal.
After a prayer of grace led by the Rev. Rachel Thomas, the church's interim rector, dozens of volunteers collected meal requests and swiftly brought guests plates of turkey dinners. Helpers, including several children, buzzed about the room during the meal to refill drinks and pass out slices of pie.
"It's a pleasure," said Connie Dreyman, who learned about the dinner from the Ledyard Senior Center. Dreyman, whose family lives out of state, was making new friends at the meal and talking to one of them who knew the exact place in Ledyard where she lived.
"It's always a small world," she said.
This year, about 50 to 60 volunteers helped out in preparing, delivering and setting up the meal of about 30 turkeys, 120 pounds of potatoes and lots and lots of gravy. The event garnered contributions from St. Mark's and local donations, including from Panera Bread, according to Vandal.
Vandal said people join the meal for various reasons. Diners include not only those who may need the food, but also those who may need a place to be during the holiday. The event includes many people who don't attend the church and draws a group of dedicated volunteers who want to give back to their community, she said.
Sydney Streimer, 21, of Mystic — whose family helps organize the meal deliveries — said the St. Mark's event has been her traditional Thanksgiving since she was a baby in a high chair. This year, as in years past, she returned home from Springfield College in Massachusetts and spent the evening before Thanksgiving peeling potatoes at the church and then delivered meals Thursday.
She said she enjoys delivering meals and seeing the smiles brought to people's faces when they see a visitor saying "Happy Thanksgiving."
"I learned giving back and helping out in the community is not just important on Thanksgiving, but every day," Streimer said.
Tammy Fowler of Waterford, who was picking up turkey meals for herself and her boyfriend, praised the event.
"We used to go to this church when we needed help in the past," she said. "The people are very friendly here. They do an excellent job."