Teen Chefs Bring 'Vermont Thanksgiving' to NY Youth Shelter

Thanksgiving is a time to appreciate all that we have, and to share these gifts with others. That's the idea behind the "Vermont Thanksgiving in New York" tradition. For the past 20 years, teenagers from a culinary arts class in rural New England have traveled nearly 400 kilometers by bus to New York to cook and serve Thanksgiving dinner to residents of America's largest youth shelter and vocational training center. VOA's Adam Phillips was on the scene as this year's feast was being prepared.

It is 11:00 Tuesday morning in the enormous kitchen of Covenant House, a shelter for homeless and at-risk youth. That's only eight hours until "turkey time," the big Thanksgiving feast that will feature the traditional roast bird. Still, that doesn't prevent some of the 21 Vermont teenagers preparing the feast from taking a brief "gobble break" to playfully imitate the animal.

Then it's back to work chopping onions for stuffing, spooning out sweet potato filling for the pies, and sliding the 16 12-kilogram turkeys into the ovens for the evening meal.

Chef-educator Gerry Prevost, who teaches cooking skills at Saint Johnsbury Academy, a small private high school in rural Vermont, is supervising preparations for the feast. His mostly middle-class students will serve 350 homeless, abused or at-risk youth now living at New York's Covenant House.

Prevost says the tradition started 20 years ago when two men from Vermont received a letter from Covenant House asking for a donation. "They said 'we don't have money, but we have some garden vegetables that we grew, and we have some turkeys that we raised, and we have some volunteers. So let's come up and prepare a 'Vermont Thanksgiving.'"

Prevost, who is leading the event for the 17th year, says it makes him "feel good to help those less fortunate,… and to see the excitement on the faces of the students."

Students like Cynthia Dersham. "It's really nice to help out people who don't have a home," Dersham says. "I am excited to see the people's faces when they see there is a dinner just for them."

"They just feed us until we're full," says Elsa Melendez who is celebrating her second Thanksgiving at Covenant House. When she came here she was broke, homeless and an unwed teenaged mother.

"The food is great. I thought it'd be some cafeteria food and jail food in a sense. But it's a home cooked meal, a full course meal," Melendez says. "It shows that they really care and they are really entwined with wanting to interact with the young people that reside here. They are sharing that love, that grace, that prayer, with others. And the turkey as well," she adds with a laugh.

Teacher Gerry Prevost says there is a bittersweet quality to the event for many of his students. Many have never been to the next county in their state, much less to the mean streets of New York where their peers at Covenant House grew up.

Prevost notes that his students "come from pretty stable families for the most part." They will be spending Thanksgiving with their families in their houses. "So they always talk about how thankful and happy when we are serving them, but then again how sad it is they don't have a family to go to."

It's mostly relief and gratitude you will see on the face of Kyrell Hardy, 21, who is about to graduate from Covenant House with a degree in food handling and preparation. As he rinses some oven pans, Hardy explains why he feels thankful on this holiday.

"I was on my own since 17. I've been forced to live on the streets. I've slept on trains, buses, (in) parks. And although this is an institution, there are a lot of young people who are going to spend this holiday season alone, cold, by themselves without any support around them," Hardy says. "And so I have been very, very blessed. Everybody's here for the same reason and the same purpose. And that's to cook a good Thanksgiving meal for these residents. It's very heartfelt. Encouragement goes a long way. That's what makes it all better."

The emotional power of the Thanksgiving holiday dinner may resonate more deeply for many of the Vermont teenagers who came to serve at Covenant House this year, as they become more aware of and grateful for the blessings they enjoy back home. As one student's mother put it, "I am sure the conversation on the bus will be very different on the way home, than it was on the way down."

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