PITTSFIELD -- Temperatures in the teens froze the mittens of many Christmas travelers on Wednesday, but those treated by the Pittsfield American Legion Post 68 were warmed up in a big way.
About 100 meals were expected to be served to those in need who made it to the post on Wendell Avenue for its annual American Legion Christmas Party. Another 300 meals were delivered to families at their homes.
Bernie and Kelly Laframboise organized an assortment of volunteers who used the day to provide food to those who need it most.
The volunteers included Candace Baker, who has helped at the party for 18 years, since her son Allen began volunteering as a fourth-grader.
"I wouldn't be anywhere else," Baker said. "Christmas for us can be anywhere. For a lot of these people, this is it. It shouldn't be about gifts. It should be about what you can do for other people."
Wednesday marked Nancy Sommer's second year volunteering. "The people are so grateful," she said.
Bill Molner, commander of the Sons of the American Legion Squadron 68, coordinated the volunteer drivers who delivered meals. His mother, Shirley, was in the Navy during World War II. He and Thomas Harmon, whose father also served in the Navy during the war, donated dinner rolls and stuffing.
Molner credited Bernie with getting him involved. The two met when Molner had a job packing bags in an Adams grocery store decades ago. These days, Molner and Harmon control local delivery routes for Arnold bread products and Thomas English muffins.
Diana Gomez, of Dalton, was a recipient of the American Legion's generosity. "It's wonderful," she said. If it weren't for the American Legion, she said might have spent Christmas alone. Her daughter was busy working for the Channel 6 news station in Albany, N.Y., she said.
One New York City transplant, who declined to be named, has been coming for the meals at the American Legion for about 20 years. "It's nice that they do that for the people. Some people don't have any place to go," he said. "It's a nice place to come to."
Marguerite Sherman's late husband, Daniel, was a WWII, Korean War and Vietnam veteran and American Legion member. She and her brother, Louie Zwingelstein, a Vietnam vet, enjoyed a meal together at the hall.
"It's fantastic," she said while sitting down and preparing to dig in. Zwingelstein said more people would attend if they didn't have to walk so far in the cold weather.
"A lot of it is donated," Bernie said. "We raise money through the year."
He credited the Pittsfield community for its contributions and noted that some of the turkeys were prepared by staff at the Berkshire Jail & House of Correction.
Inside the American Legion kitchen, a cadre of chefs were at work. Tom Lawler, a caterer based out of the Legion for the past 20 years, was flanked by longtime helpers Steve Fillio and Pete Knysh.
Knysh, who is a chef at Kimball Farm and helps Lawler with his catering business, has been assisting at the Legion since he was 14 years old and washing dishes. "They taught me how to cook," he said. "This is a nice thing to do for people who need a nice meal."
Bernie, a Navy veteran and retired machinist from Marland Mold, said the annual event started about 30 years ago thanks to the efforts of late legionnaires Ray Aughey and Richard Bentley. For about 20 years, former Pittsfield Police Chief and City Councilor Gerald Lee was in charge.
"I just love helping the community," Bernie said. "I have all the time in the world for my kids later in the day." His family plans included visiting his 90-year-old mother, Rita.
Tom Landry, American Legion Post 68 commander and a Vietnam War-era Army veteran, credited the Laframboises with being the "force behind this."
Kelly, a Marine who served during the Vietnam War, said the Legion served about 150 meals a dozen years ago. Last year it served 350.
Landry said the need has grown in recent years. "The economy is still not great," he said.
"The economy is tough out there for a lot of people, unfortunately. It's not easy," Knysh said.
"We do it for the community and the people who need it," Landry said. "We do it to help other people. That's what the Legion is about."
To reach Nathan Mayberg:
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