After months of preparation, and in spite of one of the saddest days in the history of our state, Gateway Community College (GCC) went forward with plans December 14 to host the 15th annual Neighbors in Need holiday dinner. The new GCC campus was turned into a winter wonderland for more than 600 men, women and children from 15 shelters throughout the area, making this Greater New Haven’s largest holiday party of its kind.
Guests enjoyed a delicious buffet prepared by a team of faculty, staff and students with food provided by Elm City Market, Claire’s Corner Copia, and Chabaso bakery. Children enjoyed gifts from Santa and Mrs. Claus, face painting and holiday films. Teens received gift cards and parents selected new coats for the family, and bags of personal sundries.
GCC President Dorsey L. Kendrick greeted guests with a big smile as they entered the festively decorated community room. “I look forward to this event every year,” said Dr. Kendrick. “All the preparation and effort that the college community brings is exactly what makes us an extended family. Even as we all mourn today’s horrific loss, they remain committed to providing some seasonal joy for others.”
Claire Criscuolo, owner of Claire’s Corner Copia, concurred. “People do so much to make this night a success… I had to help. It’s a wonderful evening and I wanted to be here to do whatever I could.”
Joining Claire on kitchen duty was Nino Ribeiro, owner of Galaxy Hair Salon. Maria Ojeda, a GCC culinary graduate now working at Viking Kitchens, said she simply had to come back to cook for the Holiday Dinner. She and student chefs Mel Kounnavong, Hannah Consiglio and Liz White had been making chicken and ziti and sauce since noon.
“I came tonight because I am grateful to Gateway and the least I could do is give back,” Ojeda said. “Everything I have is because of this school, these teachers. I have another family here.”
GCC Registrar Maribel Lopez and student volunteers Nelly Rios and Jennifer Rivera were busy painting ornate snowflakes and glitter tattoos on tiny hands and faces. “Our students work so hard on this every year,” said Lopez. “We love this night because it means so much to the children.”
GCC students Britzia Suarez and Aaron Phu spent three hours Friday afternoon popping popcorn and the aroma wafted all across the building. “We’re making 500 boxes,” Phu said. “It’s really fun.”
“We’re here for the satisfaction of being able to help someone else,” Suarez said.
GCC’s annual holiday dinner has grown considerably over the years. Just four years ago, about 400 guests were served. Preparations begin in early fall with more than 200 faculty/staff volunteer hours, and more than 90 student volunteer hours leading up to the Holiday Dinner.
“It was a wonderful event,” said Susan Swirsky of GCC’s department of Development and Community Partnerships, who co-chaired the event. “This is our fifteenth year hosting the event and it happens each year because of the overwhelming generosity of so many people and local businesses. It’s our Gateway Community reaching out to the Greater New Haven community.”
The Neighbors in Need annual dinner is supported entirely by donations in the form of cash, toys, sundries and winter coats from the college community, and local organizations and businesses who respond generously to requests for support. Among these, are DATTCO Bus Company, who donated busses and drivers to transport shelter residents to and from the college, Chabaso Bakery, the Omni Hotel, Elm City Market and Claire’s Corner Copia.