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Volunteers Cook Up the Holiday Spirit

Head chef Mike Conlin opened the All-Campus Dining Center (ACDC) kitchen at 5:30 Thanksgiving morning, but he wasn’t working for the college. He was heading up more than 40 volunteers from Vassar and throughout the Hudson Valley who, like Conlin, were also foregoing a holiday morning at home so they could help prepare a special free meal for 1,000 people.

Six hundred of them feasted on a traditional turkey dinner with the fixings -- stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn, sweet potato pie -- at the Family Partnership Center in downtown Poughkeepsie. Another 400 had meals delivered to them because poor health or other reasons kept them in their homes.

Conlin explained that 20 years ago Vassar began donating use of the kitchen for Poughkeepsie’s annual Eileen Hickey Thanksgiving Dinner. He decided right then to oversee the cooking as a volunteer and he has continued in that role ever since.

“It’s a huge help to use Vassar’s great facility, and then we’re so lucky to have a professional chef to lead everything,” said Dan Hickey, who began organizing the Thanksgiving meal with his wife Eileen 30 years ago, and has continued to since her early death from cancer. [Eileen Hickey was a state and county legislator as well as a longtime community activist.] The Hickeys inherited the holiday project from founder Earline Patrice, who after many years felt too old to maintain it.

Conlin’s efforts actually began the day before Thanksgiving with initial cooking and prep work. By 11:30am the next day, trays and trays of the prepared food filled the rear of a sizeable commercial truck and were driven downtown. Enter John Flowers, who handled the logistics at the Family Partnership Center. Flowers and Dan Hickey are old friends, and fifteen years ago Hickey asked him to take over organizing the hundreds of volunteers who serve the food and deliver Thanksgiving meals.

[Flowers was recently selected to receive a grant for his community organizing efforts from the Vassar Community Works Campaign, the college’s annual fundraising appeal for local non-profits.]

As for the large volunteer turnout, Hickey said, “I never ask anyone to come, they just do.” Volunteers in the ACDC kitchen included such Vassar stalwarts as cook Dimitrios Koliopoulos (42 years at Vassar), Field Work Office administrative support Alice O’Keefe (35 years), Mike Conlin (33 years), retired Buildings & Grounds worker Dawn “Leemo” Lemos (29 years), associate director of campus dining Bruce Harms (22 years), and kitchen worker Kenneth Palmer (18 years).

In fact, O’Keefe began volunteering with the Hickeys in their first year organizing the meal. “I can still remember how much my eyes teared from cutting up so many onions,” she said. This year O’Keefe’s grandchildren Alison, 14, and Ryan, 9, also joined in the effort. When asked why he was in the ACDC kitchen that morning, Ryan joyously replied, “Because it’s Thanksgiving!”

-- Jeff Kosmacher

Photos by Karl Rabe

Posted by Office of Communications Friday, December 6, 2013