In Ledyard, 'a warm welcome on Christmas'
Ledyard — Santiago Cartagena may have laughed, but he wasn't joking when he called the Saint David's Church annual Christmas feast "a family reunion."
After a tasty turkey and ham dinner provided by dozens of volunteers from throughout the community on Christmas Day, Cartagena, 60, of Pawcatuck enjoyed chatting alongside fellow Fitch High School graduate Curtis Denton before hopping up to hug and shake hands with several old friends in the crowd.
"It's exciting," Cartagena said with a smile. "It's a warm welcome on Christmas and the food is so good. It makes me want to volunteer."
Cartagena was one of hundreds joining the afternoon feast, which for 29 years has drawn families and folks of all ages from New London County, including many who struggle to make ends meet.
Diane Fisher of New London said she's been coming to Saint David's for the last five years.
"Everybody's friendly and they serve you the food here. I mean I could write a whole book on it," said Fisher, who brought two of her grandchildren to the event to share good food and learn about charity "instead of just sitting at home."
An army of volunteers — including Ledyard High School cheerleaders, retirees, veterans, parishioners and even former parishioners who live outside the area but still come to Saint David's every Christmas — zipped through the building's hallways in a chaotic dance of trays, carts and boxes for takeout and deliveries.
"I've never seen anything like it," said volunteer Lori Daugherty, Ledyard's cheer coach, who enthusiastically greeted visitors at the cafeteria entryway. "It's absolutely amazing."
Locals donated dozens of hams, turkeys, pies, cakes, clothes and toys. Coordinator Dennis McKelvey, a longtime parishioner who started out volunteering several years ago as a server during the feast, said Mohegan Sun worked with Dattco Bus and donated a double-decker luxury bus for the day to bring people back and forth from the New London Community Meal Center.
The turkeys are donated by United States Submarine Veterans Inc., Groton Base, and Electric Boat. For the last few years, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, cleared of cadets during Christmas vacation, donates a large kitchen to let more than a dozen parishioners and helpers prepare and cook the meals on Christmas Eve. Any leftovers, McKelvey said, are donated to Saint Vincent de Paul Place in Norwich.
Volunteering at the feast every year "stamps my ticket to heaven," said Ceci Iliff, who's been coming for about 15 years, often with her family.
"I keep asking myself whether I'm doing it for purely selfish reasons because it feels so good," she joked. "It's beautiful. The people that come to us are varied, from people at the homeless shelter who have nowhere to go and nothing to eat, and also people who don't have family around so they come and join us and have a special time. I wouldn't spend my Christmas any other way."
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