Earlier this month the Dornsife Center hosted a Thanksgiving feast for more than 280 local residents under a packed tent on its front lawn, and special guests came to say grace.
David and Dana Dornsife ’83, the donors whose $10 million naming gift enabled Drexel to open the renovated center three and a half years ago, came to witness how their vision of a community urban extension center connecting Drexel University with its neighbors has come alive.
“Each and every one of you brings us so much joy,” Dana Dornsife told the guests at the start of the meal. “You cannot come into this tent tonight and not feel community and fellowship. Right now, we live in a time of division, but we don’t have that here.”
The community dinners, traditionally held on the first Tuesday of every month, began soon after the Dornsife Center first opened inside three buildings on the 1.3-acre site of a restored Italianate mansion on Spring Garden Street, at the northernmost edge of campus. The Dornsife Center represents efforts by Drexel to build its relationships with its neighbors in both Mantua and Powelton Village, making University resources available to support those communities.
Chef Richard Pepino ’02, a staff member and adjunct instructor in the Center for Food and Hospitality Management, began preparing the feast a couple of days in advance with help from eight to 10 culinary students.
And a feast it was: Nearly 300 portions of turkey meat. Eighty-five pounds of sweet potato mash. Seventy pounds of carrots. Thirty pounds of cranberry sauce. Three hundred pumpkin desserts, including gluten-free soufflé and vegan meal options. And three gallons of warm gravy to top it off.
“It takes longer than people think,” Pepino said of the meal, the 15th community dinner he’s catered. “But I believe in this cause. I’m a graduate of Drexel and just to think about what this school and Philadelphia were like in 1994 when I started here, and what it’s like today, I believe that Drexel is not only moving in the right direction, but with the partners that they have in place, things are moving maybe faster than most people could have imagined. It really is a beautiful thing when you actually take a step back and look at it.”
From the start, residents of Mantua and Powelton Village have had a standing invitation to the free event, and the guest list has grown from a few dozen people to around 150 to 300 monthly. The dinners create a low-key, communal atmosphere in which to learn about the Dornsife Center and about Drexel, and to pick up information about services from community nonprofits.
“There’s no program; it’s just about coming together in fellowship,” said Senior Vice Provost of University and Community Partnerships Lucy Kerman, PhD, who is now on hugging terms with many of the regulars. “Breaking bread together is a nice way to get to know people without an agenda.”
Many guests are connected to the Dornsife Center through the programs and services it provides, such as cooking classes, skills workshops, legal assistance and computer access.
Some come to socialize, such as Al Vaughn, from Southwest Philadelphia. He said he first became involved after taking a catering class at the Dornsife Center, and now he comes to the dinners and volunteers as a server to keep busy in his retirement.
“I wanted to find something to do,” Vaughn said. “I meet people here at events like this. I do this to pass the time and keep from being bored to death.”
While parents mingled, volunteers kept children occupied at an activity table decorating foam turkeys with markers and crayons.
“It relieves the parents so they can chat and have some adult time,” said Nicolette Epifani, 22, an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer working with the Dornsife Center.
Some people have gotten jobs through connections they’ve made at the dinners, said Andrew Issa, assistant director of programming for the Dornsife Center.
“Organizations come in and grab a plate and sit next to somebody and get to talking and if somebody’s looking for a position they link up like that,” he said.
Tiffany Cleveland, 30, credited the event with helping her land a part-time job with Public Health Management Corp. At a dinner several years ago, she met a representative from Action for Early Learning, a nonprofit that promotes early literacy for pre-K children. After volunteering as a family ambassador, Cleveland had earned enough experience to qualify for a job with PHMC.
Brittany Smalls, a family navigator with Action for Early Learning, said that her organization gets to know about 20 potential parent volunteers each year through the Dornsife community dinners.
About 60 community partners were honored at the dinner in appreciation for their involvement with the Dornsife Center and the people it serves.
Alvin Jumpp, 66, sitting with his fiancé, Sandra Dandridge, 63, said that all of the universities in the city — Drexel, Penn and Temple — have to work at maintaining good relations with their neighborhoods. “Drexel shines brightest in my eyes,” he said.
As the meal began to be served, more guests wandered into the standing-room-only space, and staff quickly set up several more tables, squeezing the last remaining feet of space from the roughly 50-foot tent. At the door, a woman muttered, “They need a bigger tent,” and it was true: The tent can never be too big.