‘It means tradition and family.’ Valentine Boys & Girls Club hands out 500 Thanksgiving meals to families

Donated food is turned into warm holiday meals and is a source of pride and comfort for the Bridgeport community.

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Savannah Castell of the Boys & Girls Club hands a meal to Rachel Calderon outside the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago, Louis L. Valentine Club, in the Bridgeport neighborhood, Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 23, 2022. | Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Savannah Castell hands a meal to Rachel Calderon outside the Louis L. Valentine Boys & Girls Club in Bridgeport. It’s one of the oldest food distribution events in Chicago.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Rachel Calderon, 63, remembers walking into the Louis L. Valentine Boys & Girls Club in Bridgeport with her mom and siblings when she was younger, ready to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal with all the fixings.

The pandemic has forced the Valentine club to stop serving meals inside the building for the last couple of years, but it hasn’t deterred the organization from holding its annual Tony Maurello Thanksgiving Dinner event.

On Wednesday, volunteers handed out more than 500 meals to local families. It’s the 55th edition of the event, which has become a tradition for Calderon and other area residents, and is one of the oldest meal distribution events in Chicago.

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Volunteers with the Louis L. Valentine Boys & Girls Club place prepared Thanksgiving meals on tables for distribution. This is the 55th edition of the Bridgeport event.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“It means tradition and family. I used to come with my mom and my sisters and brothers,” Calderon said, adding that her favorite thing to eat was the stuffing and desserts. She was looking forward to enjoying her meal at home.

Each dinner is made up of food donated from the community and includes carved turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, corn, cranberry sauce, dinner roll and a dessert. Among those who donated food was Ald. Nicole Lee’s mother, who made several trays of mashed potatoes.

Lee and her family joined other volunteers to help prepare the meals at the Valentine club on Wednesday.

“For the community members that are going to have a meal that they may not have otherwise had for Thanksgiving I think it’s a source of comfort and pride for the community,” Lee said.

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Kanoa Lee-Kline, left, and his mother, Ald. Nicole Lee (11th), help prepare meals. Lee’s mother made trays of mashed potatoes.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Rachel Carpenter, 17, who also volunteered, got a chance to see what it was like being on the other side of the line, having previously come to the event to enjoy a meal with her family and the community.

“Being able to see both sides of the situation, needing to come and have food and giving the food, has given me such a great experience,” said Carpenter, who has been going to the club since she was 2. “I wanted to bring the family we have out to the community and touch other people the way that the club has touched me.”

The annual dinner takes its name from one of the club’s late board members, Tony Maurello, who used to stand in front of the club each year in a green tuxedo to hand out meals. Maurello died a few years ago.

Walter Sikora, 75, reminisced about seeing Maurello as he received his meal. Sikora has attended the Thanksgiving event for over a decade. “He was such a wonderful man,” Sikora said of Maurello.

“I used to bring my mother here, when my mother was in her 80s,” Sikora said. “It was such a wonderful occasion, to sit with the people.”

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Rachel Carpenter, 17, left, has enjoyed meals at the club with her family in previous years. This year, she served meals.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Sikora, Calderon and the volunteers all lamented not being able to enjoy a sit-down meal with the community this year, but they hoped that next year’s event would be a more traditional dinner. Still, they were glad the event is still going strong.

“Bringing the food out and letting the tradition still live on is very important,” Carpenter said. “To me and my family it’s great to see that even though there was a pandemic and the whole world was setting off, we can still keep our tradition going.”

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