Concord-Carlisle Community Chest: Inside the magical workings of Concord’s Open Table

October 29, 2015 | CONCORD

By Jeanine Calabria

This article is one in a series about the organizations supported by the Concord-Carlisle Community Chest.

I like to think of Open Table as Brigadoon, the mythical Scottish town that appears out of nowhere, attracting visitors who fall in love and can’t bear to leave. But while Brigadoon appeared only every century, Open Table conjures up, every week, a feast for 100. Beautiful centerpieces and dishes are prepared by a team of caring cooks. Bags of nutritious foods fill the pantry and are carried home by guests. And this magic has recurred, week after week, for 26 years.

Of course, it’s not magic. It takes volunteers and community groups to deliver this free community service. A single night at Open Table requires at least 75 volunteers. They work at so many different shifts during the day that most have no idea that they are a team of so many.

At 8 a.m. pantry pickups begin at neighboring bakeries and grocery stores. At the Everett Street Pantry, six volunteers sort the recent donations from food drives at the Concord Children’s Center and the Concord Recreation Department. Once that is accomplished they will begin packing bags to lbe transported to the First Parish Church by Fenn School students or the NuPath team of adults with developmental disabilities. During the day, flowers from a local florist and centerpieces assembled by the National Charity League are dropped off. Home-baked muffins and breads are donated by National Charity League as well.

During the afternoon a work team from Minute Man Arc sets up the tables, chairs and the pantry distribution site. It’s a scene of high fives and industrious workers. Later, food is delivered from different sources. For instance, Gaining Ground brings the abundance of the season in a rush of color and fragrance.

Soon the guests arrive and make the tableau complete; friends, neighbors and first timers all find a place at the table. Everyone is greeted and served. Conversation hums as pantry numbers are called and people leave their tables to shop. Social support volunteers stroll the room, helping visitors gain access to community services. One volunteer helps a guest fill out a fuel assistance form and explains how the system works. Another calls out to that it’s “Coat Give-Away Night” when each guest is invited to shop for a gently used coat and winter clothing. MetroWest Legal Services comes monthly to provide legal advice. The Domestic Violence Service Network is often present. Young volunteers help guests out to their cars with their packages and guests begin their slow departure home from Open Table.

After dessert is served and the last guest leaves, high school students from Middlesex School arrive to dismantle Open Table. Tables and chairs are put away. Tarps are stored in the basement. Bags of unused food are driven back to the Everett Street pantry. Laughter and clinking dishes form background noise while executives and students swap stories and wash dishes.

One of the oldest regular guests is helped to her car. Many of the students call out to her. Week after week she calls me “doll” and asks how my family is doing. Her rich, full life doesn’t include a retirement package at the end, but Open Table gives her socialization, human contact and healthy food. My mood lightens whenever I see her, and I think: “Who is benefitting most – me or her?”

I turn and switch off the lights. The church hall is quiet and empty. No traces left of the magical world of Open Table except the lingering aroma of what was served.

Jeanine Calabria is the President of Open Table. She has lived in Concord since 2003 with her husband Carl and three children and is currently writing a memoir cook book that she hopes to have published in 2016.