Preserving the Thanksgiving Tradition at the Greenwich Boys & Girls Club during Covid-19

Thanksgiving dinner for hundreds of children is a signature event at the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich.

Last year was the Club’s 17th annual feast.

A small crew of Boys &Girls Club staff, Board members and local officials were on hand to help with the distribution of Thanksgiving meals in a drive-thru format. Nov 24, 2020 Photo: Leslie Yager

The children look forward to the tradition all year, and eat their meals among friends at boisterous communal tables peppered by local officials and Greenwich Police officers. It’s one big, happy family.

In fact, the event draws so many volunteers that they have to take turns serving the children turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy and the “3 green bean minimum.”

None of that was possible this year.

In fact, since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Club has had to reinvent its role in the community.

Interviewed by phone earlier in the week, Boys & Girls Club CEO Cristina Vittoria, who started in her new position in the middle of the pandemic on July 1, said the Club shut down last March when schools closed and carefully transitioned to a limited in-person experience.

Vittoria said since reopening in June with a modified summer at Camp Simmons and the Clubhouse Camp, rather than a walk-in model, the Club switched to a registration model.

VP of Programs Don Palmer busy at the drive thru Thanksgiving dinner event at the Boys and Girls Club. Nov 24, 2020 Photo: Leslie Yager

“In the fall, we knew families needed after school support, so we opened up our whole facility for after school care. The children still take the bus, but they have to register,” she explained.

“We used to be open for everyone,” Vittoria added. “What we’re finding is we’re taking fewer kids, but they’re coming very regularly. These are the kids who need us the most.”

Also, she said the Club modified both the way children are grouped and the rooms they gather in. They added temperature checks, mask checks and follow up for incidents of absenteeism.

“These were all the things the schools were doing because they came straight from school to here,” Vittoria said.

For children who register for evening programs like chess club or coding classes, Vittoria said since they come to the Club from their homes, each child is checked as they enter the building.

“And we haven’t had parents in the building,” she added. “The model is they do drop off at the front desk. That’s the furthest parents come, in order to keep staff and  kids safe.”

The Club has prioritized their limited space for children of essential workers and parents who have to work outside the home and don’t have other options.

Cristina Vittoria

It was with that attention to safety and limited numbers that the Club hosted an improvised 18th annual Thanksgiving in the form of a drive-thru dinner pick up for about 100 families.

Each child went home with a turkey dinner for five family members, including sides, corn bread, a pie and sparkling apple cider.

There were masks. There was social distancing. There were smiling eyes from behind masks.

As children departed the Club for the day, each was escorted to their ride home by one of the limited volunteers, including Greenwich Schools Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones, Greenwich Police Chief James Heavey, First Selectman Fred Camillo, and Greenwich Fire Dept Chief Joseph McHugh.

Greenwich Police Chief James Heavey, Boys &Girls Club VP of Administration Megan Sweeney and Greenwich Fire Dept Chief Joseph McHugh at the Boys & Girls Club drive thru Thanksgiving meal give away. Not 24, 2020 Photo: Leslie Yager
Don Palmer and Damarys Aceituno, a Greenwich High School Junior who was recently elected president of the Keystone Club at the Boys & Girls Club. Damarys has been coming to the Club since she was six. Nov 24, 2020 Photo: Leslie Yager
Greenwich Police Chief Heavey busy volunteering at the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich Thanksgiving drive thru event. Nov 24, 2020 Photo: Leslie Yager
Greenwich Schools Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones with Boys &Girls Club CEO Cristina Vittoria and Greenwich Police Chief Heavey. Nov 24, 2020 Photo: Leslie Yager
Fred Camillo and Boys & Girls Club CEO Cristina Vittoria at the drive thru Thanksgiving event. Nov 24, 2020 Photo: Leslie Yager

Vittoria said the Club also provides a space for high schoolers to participate in remote learning at Greenwich High School.

“They can do remote learning here all day,” she said. “When they announced the GHS hybrid, with two days in the building and three remote, we opened the Club house during the day to each of the cohorts for each of their days not on campus.”

Over 20 teens signed up.

“The crazy part of it is our numbers have fluctuated because of quarantines,” Vittoria said. “We’ll have kids out two weeks because their class is quarantined.”

“It’s great to see these kids in the building every day and their parents are appreciative that we’re open and we’re committed to staying open as long as we can and its safe, and we’re in lockstep with the schools.”

– Cristina Vittoria, Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich CEO

In addition to offering a space for remote learning and after school programs for children who register in advance, the Club is also providing virtual programs for children who can’t get to the Club.

This includes after school enrichment, Greenwich United Way Reading Champions, Bridge to Success and other programs that are more about character development, including Passport to Manhood, Smart Girls and Club Fit.

“The biggest area that needed support for our programs and virtual clubs have been our teens,” Vittoria said. “They’re really missing that interaction at school. We’ve seen our teen membership increase with evening programs with Torch Club and Keystone Club.”

“This is an incredibly fulfilling job,” Vittoria said. “I bounce out of bed waiting to come to work every morning.”