This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
For nearly 20 years, Colleen Yarnall, a teacher at Thomas Mifflin Elementary School, has been serving up a traditional-style Thanksgiving feast for her students.
The feast, which started with just the students in Yarnall’s class, has since become a schoolwide event. On Tuesday, all 337 students sat down to a full turkey dinner at the East Falls school.
“Everyone was working together to make this happen,” Yarnall said.
From volunteers at the East Falls Community Council to the teachers in the building, parents and neighboring businesses, everyone pitched in to make the meal a success. Every teacher signed up to contribute food. They prepared turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, mac and cheese, green beans, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cornbread – the whole array.
Yarnall did a lot of preparation work on her own, but she could not do it all.
“I did 75 pounds of potatoes yesterday. Tonight I’m making 400 pieces of cornbread, and turkey and gravy,” she said on the day before the event. “I will get up in the middle of the night to put the turkey on so that it is warm tomorrow. … It takes hours and hours.”
(From left) student Shahan Rodwell, principal Leslie Mason, teacher organizer Colleen Yarnall, and Kathy Smith pose in front of the cardboard turkey used to collect food donations for the needy. (Photo: Joseph Staruski)
Some senior citizens also come to the school to help, and others did what they could from home. They were mobilized through the East Falls Community Council. Joan Logan, a retired nurse who was helping with the event, comes to the school every Wednesday to read to students in the school’s new library. “Reading is so important,” she said.
The volunteers from East Falls – there were about eight of them – showed up the day before the event and helped set up the tables with decorations and tablecloths. Others wrapped the silverware. They put everything into the school’s hallway, where the feast would be enjoyed the next day. That’s when the volunteers came back and served food to the children, alongside some of the teachers and parents.
Romana Thompson-Edmonds, a parent volunteer, helped by serving gravy. “This is amazing,” she said. She had taken her son, Jayden Edmonds, to a few other schools – one was a charter and another was private – before enrolling him in Mifflin.
“This is the first school we have been to with a real love and community feeling,” she said, adding that she volunteered at this event so she can get to know the teachers and be a part of her child’s education.
In previous years, the teachers have had to donate food for the feast or the school has asked students to pay $2 each for the meal, according to principal Leslie Mason. They have also hosted bake sales in previous years.
“Thank goodness we did not have to do that this year,” said Yarnall.
Instead, the school raised about $1,000 from a fall festival in September that was hosted by the Friends of Thomas Mifflin. They had games and threw pies in principal Mason’s face, which was the biggest money-raiser of all.
Local businesses also pitched in, including Wegman’s and the 4th Street Cookie Company. Secret Garden, a nearby garden supplies company that rents out party supplies, gave the school a discount and free pick-up and drop-off services for the 30-40 tables that organizers rented.
Parent volunteer Romana Thompson-Edmonds and her son Jayden.
Because of all the fundraising this year, “nothing came out of the teachers’ pockets,” said Yarnall.
In the feast’s early years, it was just Mason and her mother feeding one classroom of students. “It is something that started with my mother, and my mother would come into the classroom and do it with me. She passed away about 10 years ago, and I said, ‘I have to keep doing it,’” said Yarnall. The feast has served every student in the school for nine years now.
As the day of the feast approached, students prepared small writing assignments explaining what they are thankful for. These were pasted onto leaf-shaped pieces of paper and hung from the walls and ceiling, filling the hallway.
The teachers also made sure that students were able to bring some food home with them if they needed it.
Mason said that they know who are the students with the most need. They make sure to send those students home with some leftovers. After everyone had eaten, Yarnall was hard at work stacking up servings of leftovers and cleaning up the classroom that was used as a serving station.
The feast lasted from about 11 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., when students went back to their classrooms to finish out the school day.
The school community also gives back as part of the event. Each year they collect food to give to the needy. Last year, the 8th-grade class built a big turkey out of cardboard to put in the hallway, and kids are asked to “feed the turkey” by putting canned goods and other non-perishable items into it.
Mason said that they filled the turkey a few times already this year with donations for a program called the Share Food Program that helps provide food relief throughout the Philadelphia region.
“I love this school,” said Yarnall. “Philly schools do not always get the attention they deserve, and people need to see more of the good.”