Story by Sara I. Smith
Honoka‘a High School student leaders and community volunteers join hands and hearts to bring Thanksgiving to those who need it most.
How does an after school program host Thanksgiving for 800 guests? With a whole lot of heart.
As this magazine goes to print, the juniors and seniors in Honoka‘a High School’s Student Leadership Training Program are hard at work planning their 8th annual Thanksgiving Dinner, a festive and completely free meal offered to anyone in the community of need. Whether it’s a need of food, friendship or that warm feeling resulting from a community coming together, no one is turned away. After all, it is Thanksgiving and the students are determined to provide their neighbors an evening to feel grateful for.
The sweetness of the scene, the care with which the cafeteria is trimmed and the bright young smiles in the buffet line, somewhat belie the fact that this dinner really does make a difference to many in the town. Since Honoka‘a’s sugar plantation closed in 1994, making ends meet is still hard for many. Over 70 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-cost lunch, a definite indicator of financial hardship, and the bedroom community’s rising number of senior citizens are increasingly affected by the area’s economic stalemate.
No one is more aware of this than Angella Brandt, lifelong Honoka‘a resident and faculty coordinator for the high school leadership program. When presented with the opportunity to take the event over from the local chapter of the Salvation Army back in 2004, she jumped on it. Under her care it has grown nearly five-fold.
In talking about the dinner and the leadership program she runs at the school, she refers to a quote by Winston Churchill: “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” Brandt says earnestly, “I want to make that real for the kids.”
At its essence, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to share the spirit of gratitude through generosity and compassion. The young leaders at Honoka‘a High achieve this in spades. Last year the community dinner tipped the scales at 806 guests. They even deliver to the home-bound with volunteer help from local police and Lion’s Club members—an additional 106 meals.What an amazing feat considering their entire budget is $2,500 (about $2.75 per person.).
The student group toils over details for the dinner, from reservations and logistics, to budgeting, cooking and decorating. For the kids who assist with the meal drop-offs, often to neighborhoods they’d not normally frequent, the experience is especially eye-opening. “It makes them realize just how needy some are,” says Brandt.
The reward for their work is getting to greet and serve the guests that night. They become sitting ducks, albeit willingly, for spontaneous hugs from many a Tutu overcome with gratitude.
Honoka‘a alumna Jana Carpio recalls people coming to the dinner looking relaxed and happy. “You feel really warm knowing you did a good thing,” she says. Now a UH-Manoa student, Carpio helped plan three events in her time at the high school.
It takes nothing less than the broad shoulders of a willing community to pull this dinner off and Brandt is quick to give thanks for the support the project has attracted. Major financial backing comes from Hamakua Energy Partners and a generous repeat donor who prefers to remain anonymous. Different classes, even down to the elementary school level, take on fundraising projects for the dinner throughout the year. Additionally, much support comes in the form of small donations handed over by fellow faculty, friends and neighbors.
“Without the community we wouldn’t be able to have the dinner,” Carpio states adamantly.
The turkeys are sold at a deep discount from Malama Market, a subsidiary of Foodland. Waimea town’s Paniolo Country Inn provides gravy and stuffing; the staff at Mauna Lani Bay Hotel come in early to roast all 25 turkeys, and Queen Lili‘uokalani Children’s Center pays for the pies. When yields allow, neighbor farms donate produce fresh from their fields, salad greens or ‘uala (sweet potato). Always a hit is Jim Cain’s King Lau Lau poi, which he donates every year.
If there’s a little money left over in the budget they splurge on luxuries most of us wouldn’t think twice about tossing in our shopping cart: whipped cream for the pies and fresh strawberries. Funds also go toward non-perishable goods for edible door prizes—almost everyone gets one, they proudly report—things like granola bars, cans of SPAM, and boxes of cereal. Last year they started making special goodie bags just for the little kids.
Even with full bellies and warm hearts, their dinner guests do not leave empty-handed. Leftovers are bagged and handed out, centerpieces, balloons and the rest of the decorations are taken down and sent back out to bring cheer into people’s homes. With all the volunteers’ work now undone, it becomes an exercise in impermanence and a lesson in the true spirit of Thanksgiving.
“We really have to teach the kids how to volunteer,” Brandt says. “We provide them opportunities to be of service, then they get the bug.”
Former-student Carpio hopes the event continues to grow to feed even more people. To help make that happen, cash and food donations are gladly accepted. This year the students will be at it again on Wednesday, November 27 as the Community Thanksgiving Dinner at Honoka‘a High begins at 5 p.m. To make a reservation, arrange a home delivery, or donate, call the Student Leadership Program at (808) 775-8800 ext. 264.