BELFAST — Thanksgiving may typically be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, but for some, the holiday spirit arrived a day early, along with the traditional Thanksgiving food.
The Belfast Soup Kitchen holds its holiday celebrations a day early, treating hundreds of guests and visitors to a few hours of home-cooking and good company.
Welcoming guests to this year’s event were three unexpected four-legged friends — Horses Over America was at the event, with Founder and Executive Director Gerry Scott sitting atop Hercules, and two locals atop their own equines. Scott founded the organization in Maine and New Hampshire in 2020 and 2021.
According to its website, the organization believes itself to be: “the highest impact and lowest cost mental health betterment initiative of this decade. Never in history has the vast majority of police departments in America had the use of horses to address the increasing mental health issues faced by our nation’s over 17,000 towns and cities. Horses Over America is a creative partnership between our nation’s 17,000 police departments and 34,000 of our nation’s horse owners who volunteer their horses, trailers and time to change the landscape of mental health in these towns and cities. There are 9.3 million horses and 4.6 million horse owners in the United States.”
Scott, a retired U.S. army colonel, works with Horses Over America, which sees Hercules and his human travel to towns and cities around Northern New England in an effort to better the mental health of those they visit.
“I go to 15 cities and three states and this is one of my three. I’ll be in Boston in two or three days,” Scott said. “We go to schools, hospitals, neighborhoods, boys and girls clubs, soup kitchens, [and] nursing homes.”
Belfast Police Chief Robert Cormier was also outside welcoming visitors, handing out treats for visitors to feed the hoofed guests of the day. Scott said Cormier was the reason Horses Across America began making stops in Belfast. Though it isn’t Scott’s first trip to Belfast with Hercules, it was the first holiday celebration in the city.
“With the holiday we thought, ‘what a great way to bring cheer and smiles to the people,’” Cormier said. “That’s the effect the horses have wherever they go. And, we have local volunteers who have horses that have partnered with Lt. Scott today, to add a little bit of extra cheer.”
Entering the building, guests were greeted by happy laughter, with every table in use. Several staff members and many volunteers were carrying out any number of tasks.
Maria Jacobs, one of two staff handling community and guest relations, said she began volunteering in June 2020, after being laid off due to the pandemic. She eventually became a staff member, and said she finds the work fulfilling.
This marks the second Thanksgiving held in the new soup kitchen, which was formerly located on Field Street.
Jacobs said both events were a success.
“[This event is] as successful as we could imagine,” she said. “It’s great to see a full dining room. The abundance is very fulfilling.”
Jacobs said that her favorite part of the day is, “just being with the people during this time, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. It’s like coming into our kitchen in our home. Everyone is like a family here, both for the volunteers and the guests that come.”
One volunteer delivering food to tables was 11-year-old Troy Howard Middle School student Allie M.
She worked at BSK all summer, “on Tuesdays and Thursdays, then once school started I work here on my breaks,” she said.
Allie was inspired to offer her services by her father.
“My dad started working here last summer, so I just wanted to help,” she said.
Fellow volunteer Crystal A., who has been volunteering for two years, said she comes to BSK with her day program.
“I serve the drinks and I serve the food and I want to say that it’s a really good volunteering thing that I like doing,” she said.
Crystal said that BSK is a fun place to be.
“I would tell people about it, and maybe they would come to volunteer.”
As for her favorite dish, Crystal said, “I like turkey, I like everything.”
Another volunteer, Jason U., is a big fan of turkey himself.
“Turkey happens to be my favorite meat. I eat turkey all year long,” he said. As for desserts, Jason said: “I’m a pudding guy for some reason. I like chocolate pudding, vanilla pudding, all kinds of different puddings.”
Food was top of mind for many of the guests and volunteers. BSK Executive Director Cherie Merrill was busy multi-tasking, from handing out food to answering questions.
Though it might not be as intense as the holiday, Merrill said BSK is busy every day.
“We are doing about 500 meals a day between takeout, delivery, and inside dining. We’re delivering across all of Waldo County,” she said.
When asked what her favorite part of the job was, Merrill had this to say: “Just helping people. This is my dream job, really. Our community is so supportive of what we do, and not just the Belfast community, the greater Waldo County community, and it’s just really nice to see everyone coming together to take care of our community.”
Merrill said the staff and volunteers have worked to change the public’s perception about soup kitchens.
“We’ve worked hard over the last two years to reduce the stigma of people using BSK and that we want that light and airy feel,” she said. “We have Horses Over America today, we partner with Artivism in Maine, we have artists here, singers, dancers, so that it’s more of a community feel than a soup kitchen. All of our guests are waited on as if it's a restaurant.”
Of the hundreds served over the day, three took time away from their meals to share their holiday favorites.
Golda, who said she visits BSK off and on, is a turkey fan.
“I like the turkey legs, they’re my favorite,” she said.
Golda’s tablemate Germaine said she likes the pies best, specifically, rhubarb.
“I love it here,” she said. “The people here are so nice.”
Ken Tuttle, who was seated at a table near the back of the dining room, echoed the sentiment.
“The food is nice, but the people that work here are wonderful,” he said.
All types of donations are welcomed by BSK, including monetary, perishable, and non-perishable food, though food must be unopened to be accepted.
Erica Thoms can be reached at email@example.com