Girl Scouts from around the area helped collect turkeys and fixings to make Thanksgiving baskets for the food pantry at the Dalton's United Methodist Church.
DALTON, Mass. — When Jennifer Messenger began working at the food pantry at the United Methodist Church, she had no idea how much work there was to do.
"I started doing this in 2008, when I assumed no one would come in the door because, I thought, 'Who could be hungry in Dalton?' " Messenger recalled recently.
Over time, she learned that the need is acute and growing.
"This year, we have much higher demand," Messenger said.
"We started out with anywhere from 25 to maybe 45 families at most in a busy month. Now, it's nothing to see 70 families. Those people come in every week with their six kids or three kids or an elderly couple. Finding ways to meet their needs ... "
Messenger's voice trails off as she contemplates the enormity of the challenge facing local food banks like hers — a challenge made more difficult this year in the facing of funding cuts to programs like the Food Bank of Western Mass and the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which benefits many of the families who come to the pantry.
Earlier this fall, Messenger delivered a difficult message.
"I said we weren't going to have Thanksgiving baskets because we weren't going to have the funding, and we weren't going to get the turkeys from the Western Mass food bank," she said.
Enter the Girl Scouts.
A group of Scouts in Grades 6 through 12 meets regularly in the church where Messenger manages the food pantry. And when they heard about the decision to forgo the the Thanksgiving baskets, the girls took up the challenge.
Contacting local businesses and reaching out to the community with donation drives outside area supermarkets, the Cadette, Senior and Ambassador level Scouts brought in enough food to fill those baskets and then some, helping to brighten the holiday for five dozen Berkshire County families and keep stock the shelves in Dalton and two other area towns.
"I never, ever, in my wildest dreams, expected they would be this enthusiastic and get this much accomplished," Messenger said. "It seems they really took it to heart."
On Sunday evening, the Scouts were back at the church for their monthly meeting and the chance to fill the baskets with potatoes, vegetables, side dishes and desserts to accompany the turkeys.
Three dozen of the birds are coming from the North Adams Walmart, which was contacted by Florida, Mass., Scouts Jenna Janz and Haley Winchell. A dozen more came from Lee's Boyd Technologies. More turkeys will be purchased using gift cards donated at drives the Scouts ran at the North Adams Walmart and Stop & Shop stores in North Adams and Pittsfield.
The girls collected food at elementary schools in Williamstown and Lanesborough. And the girls' efforts were supplemented by food drives held by the Dalton Boy Scouts and the Dalton Interact Club, the youth arm of the Rotary Club.
In all, 63 baskets were filled with holiday goodies on Sunday evening.
"Our shelve are as full as they've been," Messenger said. "It's really humbling to see the kids step up like this. I was very impressed. It was really astonishing.
Girl Scout leader Colleen Janz, Jenna's mom, said the food drive generated enough donations to take care of the Thanksgiving baskets, supply holiday baskets later in the season and give some "leftovers" to the pantries in Lanesborough and Williamstown.
The impetus for the drive came from the Scouts' Girls Leadership in Action Meeting, an opportunity to bring together older Scouts from around the county to work on their Silver and Gold Awards. Troop sizes can sometimes shrink as girls grow from Brownies to Juniors to Cadettes and members leave the program; the monthly meetings of older Scouts from various troops allow them to continue to enjoy a group experience, Colleen Janz said.
The Berkshire County "GLAM" meetings generally attract from three to four dozen girls.
The Scouts from Lanesoborough already have talked with the local post office and elementary school to make this year's fall food drive is an event that repeats in future years.
"Today, there was one girl who said, 'Do you get homeless people here?' " Messenger said. "They're interested in things. That's the key to building continuous volunteers instead of just a one-time thing. And the girls seemed so enthusiastic and interested in making sure all of the items were covered.
"I thought they were going to just get 50 turkeys, and I was going to get all the rest of the stuff.
"The Girl Scouts are just amazing. Honestly, it is amazing. There's nothing to say except that. I was completely blown away."