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For Thanksgiving, community leaders ensure migrant families don’t go hungry

Ivona Niyonkinzo, a volunteer for La Colaborativa, handed out squash to community members in Chelsea on Tuesday.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Gladys Vega’s Tuesday began at 4:30 in the morning under a bridge in Chelsea.

For the next 16 hours, she and a team of volunteers, including politicians and state officials, handed out nearly 10,000 meals to a group of mostly Latin American residents, she said, including families who recently arrived in Massachusetts as part of an ongoing surge of migration to the state.

Meanwhile, across Greater Boston in Mattapan, Geralde Gabeau helped her staff convert their office into a makeshift dining room, where they served dinner to more than 60 mostly Haitian families, many celebrating their first Thanksgiving after coming to the United States.


The twin efforts, by Vega’s nonprofit La Colaborativa, and Gabeau’s group, the Immigrant Family Services Institute, reflected a desire among workers on the front line of immigration advocacy to pause and sit for a family meal in the midst of a seemingly endless scramble to respond to the wave of migration that has stretched the state’s support networks to the breaking point.

Like so many of those working to feed and house newly arrived migrants, Vega described her work on Tuesday as both gratifying and utterly draining. In an interview Wednesday, her voice, usually full-throated, was little more than a hoarse whisper.

“I lost it yesterday,” Vega said. “Just giving directions, setting up, talking to people, saying ‘Happy Thanksgiving.’ It was an amazing event.”

The thousands of people who crowded under the bridge in Chelsea or who dined shoulder to shoulder at Gabeau’s office in Mattapan represent just a fraction of the more than 11,000 migrants who have reached Massachusetts this year, according to a Globe review. (The crowd in Chelsea and the dinner guests in Mattapan also included longer-term residents still struggling to gain a foothold.)

The numbers — Gabeau said her nonprofit has served a more than fivefold increase this year over last — have overwhelmed aid groups and the state’s shelter system, forcing Governor Charlie Baker’s administration to house migrant families in hotels as a measure of last resort.


In recent weeks, the administration has also announced the opening of new shelters at an empty residential complex at Salem State University and at a community center in Devens to accommodate migrant families, who continue to arrive at increasing rates, state officials said.

But the chaos of recent months felt a bit less immediate to some on Tuesday, the dinner table a welcome albeit brief reprieve from the onslaught of phone calls and paperwork.

Chancelaine Marius-Smith, who reached Massachusetts this year after crossing the Mexico-Texas border and then trying to settle in Florida, said that when she sat down for Thanksgiving in Mattapan, she couldn’t help but smile. Surrounded by fellow Haitian migrants and staff members from the Institute, it was the first time she felt truly welcome in the United States.

“Florida was extremely different than the way I was received in Boston, and so the dinner, my first Thanksgiving dinner, made this a very special welcome for me,” Marius-Smith, 34, said through an interpreter. “My family and I just feel so grateful for the opportunity we have.”

Marius-Smith said that when she first arrived in Massachusetts with her husband and two children, she had “nowhere to go, no parents, nobody to receive us.” But Gabeau’s organization quickly stepped in, connecting Marius-Smith with food and clothing for her and her family, and helping them secure stable housing. Now, her son is enrolled in school, and her daughter feels settled in the community.


At first, “we were just so grateful to have made it here alive,” she said. “And then to find organizations that could assist us, we are now hopeful that things will get better in the future.”

In Chelsea on Tuesday, a rotating cast of volunteers helped Vega and staff members of La Colaborativa pass out food. Senator Edward J. Markey was among those handing out bags of maseca, a corn flour used to make tortillas.

“If I heard the word gracias once, I heard it a hundred times,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “In Massachusetts, we treat our neighbors like a family . . . and La Colaborativa is the best example of it that I know.”

The menu was diverse, reflecting the composition of the crowd. A popular Central American chicken dish, Gallina vieja, was a favorite, Vega said. Volunteers also handed out thousands of servings of pork shoulder, which many families would use in pupusas, a kind of savory cake.

There was halal chicken for Muslim families. Vega even catered to the tastes of Anglo-Americans. “For the non-Latinos,” she said, “we had their turkey and corn and mashed potatoes.”

In the evening, a woman pulled Vega aside to thank her, according to state Senator Sal DiDomenico, who witnessed the exchange.

“We wouldn’t have a Thanksgiving dinner if it wasn’t for what you’re doing,” he overheard the woman tell her.


Vega, more than 14 hours into her shift, started to cry. DiDomenico teared up, too.

“It struck a chord,” he said.

Dieufort Fleurissaint, a pastor who works with the Immigrant Family Services Institute, said staff and volunteers go the extra mile because often what families need are not just direct services, but also “someone to let them know they are not alone.”

“Just the way we treat them,” he said, “It gives them hope that things will be better in America.”

Mike Damiano can be reached at Ivy Scott can be reached at Follow her @itsivyscott.