Patrick J Crowley - writing portfolio

Christmas gets an early start

PATRICK J. CROWLEY, Reformer Staff

Tuesday, December 26 2007

BRATTLEBORO --I needed coffee. Call it my morning tradition or call it an addiction, but I needed the caffeine. I awoke early Christmas morning and drove out of Keene, N.H., where I live. I realized as I drove my frosty car down the barren streets that I was still rather sleepy.

"Coffee," I thought to myself. I drove by a couple stores in search for a hot cup of coffee.


Then, as I barreled down Route 9 toward Vermont, I realized where it was I was heading.

A breakfast -- the annual Christmas Breakfast to be precise. I knew where I would get my fix.

When I arrived at St. Michael's School in Brattleboro, the Christmas spirit was alive and well. Just about every person I saw as I walked in looked at me with a bright smile.

"Merry Christmas," they all said.

"Merry Christmas," I answered. Even the organizer, Fran Willette was shaking everyone's hand as they entered the building.

"How many?" a women asked me as I stood in the doorway.

"Just me," I said. She directed me toward a seat at one of the tables toward the left side of the wide open room, which was about half-full (not half-empty) and filling fast.

I was seated quietly and asked what I wanted for my breakfast. A volunteer ran down the list.

"Pancakes, eggs and sausage," she said.

"Everything," I told her. Then, finally, a man came to the table with a hot pot of coffee. I had never been so happy to see a styrofoam cup in front of me.

My belly full of hot food and coffee, I took the scene in. More people began to sit and eat. Families, elderly couples, children and pesky reporters alike, it was one big family.

What's so great about the community breakfast on Christmas morning is the good cheer. You would be hard-pressed to find a gathering of people happier than these people were.

It was Christmas, and everyone knew it. This was a place you could set your troubles down at the door and take some time to remember why it is we celebrate this holiday.

After enjoying two cups of coffee, it was time for me to work. I was there for a reason after all. I grabbed my notebook and started at my task of being a pesky reporter, asking the obvious questions.

The community breakfast has being going on for about 26 years and was started by a man named Charlie Slate.

Slate said in 1980, he was in downtown Brattleboro on Christmas day and noticed that there was nowhere for someone to go for a hot breakfast.

The next year, he asked the Elks if he could hold a breakfast in their lodge.

They allowed him to, and he had only two days to prepare for it. By the time Christmas rolled around in 1981, everything was ready.

"For the first two or three years, I paid for everything myself," said Slate, who said eventually people began to donate, in particular, C&S Wholesale Grocers, who he said played a large part in terms of donation.

Slate said he brought in around 50 people to the breakfast in that first year, and it grew for the next 17 years until Willette took over the responsibilities.

Willette moved the breakfast from the Elks lodge to St. Michael's School on Walnut street in 1996 and has since been able to bring in crowds of up to 965 people. Willette said the breakfast on Christmas morning this year brought in somewhere around 600-700 people, all serviced by just a handful of volunteers.

"Without them, it wouldn't happen," said Willette. "This crew has been on board for about six years now."

Willette said he'll usually arrive at the school around 5 a.m. to start the coffee, then the other 15 volunteers start to arrive between 6 and 7 a.m.

About a week before the breakfast, Willette said he will start to bring in some of the food. Most of the food, he said, he'll get from the same places he gets it for his school lunch program at St. Michael's, only it's donated.

Then the work of the volunteers comes into play. They prepare the food then serve it to those at the breakfast.

Connie Howe, a volunteer at the breakfast, said she's been helping out at the event for five years, and just has fun being there.

"I feel blessed by doing it," she said.

Howe said she thought it was important to have such an event for the community because it's not a happy day for everyone, for there are those whose children have grown and gone.

"There are some people that are alone and it's wonderful to be able to share a little bit of cheer on this special day for those that are less fortunate," she said.

After I had taken care of my reporting, I put my notebook away and enjoyed some more orange juice.

As I stood in the doorway of the school's cafeteria, the tables continued to fill. Willette was running around as busy as I've seen anyone before, taking care of the food, the volunteers and the guests, even making sure someone had enough coffee now and then.

Families were still socializing and finishing up their plates.

Some said this was about the fellowship.

"It's a good way for the community to interact," said Karen Hazelton at the table with her family.

Other's just felt comfortable.

"They make you feel very welcome," said Mary-Lou Clark, of Brattleboro. And somehow, they even made me, a young, cocky and pesky reporter, feel welcome.

Even if it was my first "adult" Christmas away from my family, it still felt like Christmas.