WATERVILLE — Hundreds of cars lined up along Front Street Saturday afternoon to pick up holiday food bag’s provided by the Alfond Youth and Community Center.

Staff and volunteers dressed festively while attendees were greeted with the playing of holiday music and free hot chocolate.

“We’re just trying to raise everyone’s spirits a little bit,” said Sawyer Boulette, AYCC’s wellness director. “We wanted to make it festive, 2020 has been pretty challenging.”

After a strong turnout during its Thanksgiving meal giveaway, which distributed 850 hot meals, the center decided to expand its efforts to feed the community.

Jay Coelho, dressed as Santa Claus, hands out portions of the food basket available Saturday at the Alfond Youth and Community Center in Waterville. The AYCC distributed 1,000 holiday meal baskets that can feed up to 10 people. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“The amount of people that showed up for the Thanksgiving food drive was totally unexpected,” Ken Walsh, the center’s chief operating officer said during a phone interview Saturday. “We were all saddened that we had to turn people away after we handed out all of the food that we had available. So our staff and board felt that it would be a nice gesture for our community to host this holiday food giving program.”

Saturday’s event distributed 1,000 reusable shopping bags packed with all of the fixings for a holiday meal.

“For Thanksgiving we gave away meals but today we’re giving away bags,” Walsh said. “So each bag could feed up to eight people and we’re giving away 1,000 bags, you’re talking anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 meals. That’s nearly ten times the amount that we provided during Thanksgiving.”

“There is definitely a need for this, I mean, we saw that during Thanksgiving,” Boulette said.

More than 40 volunteers spent two days to pack each bag with either an 8 pound ham or a 15 pound turkey, a jar of applesauce, a box of instant potatoes, a can of green beans, a can of corn, a jar of peanuts, a block of cheese, a box of crackers and hot chocolate mix.

According to Boulette, the center received donations from multiple local businesses to help the event run more efficiently.

“Shaws, Hannaford, Kennebec Savings Bank and New Dimensions all donated the bags,” Boulette said. “We had paper bags and they were ripping as we were putting the food in. So we scrounged up about 1,000 bags in one day and started packing.”

Walsh said that in total, the center received more than $20,000 worth of donations for Saturday’s event.

“Without the wonderful support from our contributors, this would not be possible,” Walsh said. “They help us give back to the community and that’s what we’re all about.”

The center wanted to expand its efforts to feed the community due to the growing issue of food security that has emerged since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, according to Walsh.

Cars line North Street waiting to enter the Alfond Youth and Community Center parking lot Saturday where they distributed 1,000 holiday meal baskets in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“A big problem that has been developing since the beginning of the pandemic is food insecurity,” Walsh said. “That’s one of the things that our mission is all about, providing hot free meals for families and youth. But now with the pandemic, we’re extending it out to the community at large.”

Walsh also mentioned how the staff and volunteers at the center play a key role in making events like Saturday’s giveaway possible.

“Our staff at the AYCC has just been tremendous since March and they haven’t let up,” Walsh said. “That just shows that they’re so mission driven and without having that proper energy, none of this would be possible.”

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