GARDINER — Raymond and Marlene Lausier cradled their plates of turkey, stuffing and potato as they made their way slowly to their table at the back of the room. They stopped briefly along the way to catch up with a friend they had not seen since last year. Raymond left to get their drinks; Marlene, to get their pies.

“We don’t want to miss out on desert,” she said, smiling brightly at a visitor.

The Lausiers sat down, close together, and began their meal. It was Thanksgiving, and each is the other’s bounty.

“We have so much to be thankful for,” Marlene Lausier said.

Thanksgiving, perhaps more than any other holiday, is known as a time for getting together with family, but for hundreds of Mainers, and for as many reasons, such gatherings are impossible. Many, like the Lausiers, found joy in the next best thing: Gathering with friends at Gardiner Area High School for the Augusta Valley Scottish Rite Masons’ free Thanksgiving dinner.

“We enjoy it,” Marlene Lausier said. “Some of the people we know and some we don’t. We like to make new friends.”

The community Thanksgiving meal has been served for at least 20 years, said coordinator Larry Perkins. This year, a team of more than 60 volunteers will deliver more than 400 meals to homes throughout central Maine and serve up more than 100 at the high school cafeteria. For many, like the Lausiers, the meals fill a social need, much more than a financial one.

“They’re looking for company, someone to have Thanksgiving dinner with,” Perkins said. “It’s a chance to come be with others and get a good meal.”

Vicki Dill, of West Gardine,r began volunteering at the dinner about 13 years ago. This year, Dill was in charge of coordinating the delivery of 91 donated pies and making 500 rolls.

“It’s just fun,” she said. “It’s a very warm feeling. This is my Thanksgiving now.”

Dana Gregoire, of Gardiner, has volunteered with her family for about five years. Gregoire said her family used to have Thanksgiving at her house so that her mother, who was in a nursing home, could join them.

“When that ended, we decided we wanted to do something in our community,” she said. “We just wanted to give back.”

Gregoire said her family planned to spend Thursday afternoon eating pizza and playing games, and would have a traditional Thanksgiving meal together today. “It makes you appreciate what you have,” Gregoire said. “We do the home deliveries. Many of the people we see don’t get out to see others. Just to go out and say a few words, it makes you feel good.”

Tom and Kelly Frey helped keep food flowing on the serving line, as they have for about the past 13 years. The couple got involved when they attended church with Perkins. The tradition continued when the Freys moved to South Portland.

“This is still our Thanksgiving. This is our tradition. This is our family,” said Kelly Frey. “These are people we never see, except today.”

Frey said the volunteers have in common a spirit of thankfulness that sparks a desire to give back.

“We have to be really grateful for what we have and who we have in our lives,” she said.

Ron Emery, of South China, has volunteered at the dinner for more than 20 years. His children, who were young at the time, used to dress up as Pilgrims and help lead people to their tables. One, time they served former Gov. John McKernan and his wife, Sen. Olympia Snowe.

Emery said many of the delivery drivers get to know the people to whom they deliver.

“They know those people wouldn’t have a meal if it weren’t for them,” Emery said. “Some of them bring two meals just so they have extra.”

But the food pales in comparison to the fellowship for Frank Strollo and Bob Morrison, who shared a table and caught up over their meal. Morrison, 64, of Chelsea, and Strollo, 61, of Randolph, both of whom are single, have made the dinner a tradition for a number of years.

“I live close, so I come here,” Morrison said.

Strollo, who has driven bus in the Gardiner school system for more than 40 years, said he likes living alone, but he glad for a place to join others for Thanksgiving dinner.

“It’s like a family gathering,” he said. “Then I can go home and watch football.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642
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