Thanksgiving feast in Basalt bridges cultural divide | AspenTimes.com

Thanksgiving feast in Basalt bridges cultural divide

Mariana Chissum, a student at Basalt High School, helps serve food at a Thanksgiving dinner Tuesday evening. The feast is intended to help integrate students who don't speak English as a first language into American culture.

Basalt got a taste Tuesday night of why high school teacher Leticia Ingram was honored last month as Colorado's Teacher of the Year.

More than 200 people gathered at Basalt High School for a Thanksgiving feast intended to help immerse students who speak little or no English and their families into American culture and establish ties to the community.

It's one of several creative ideas Ingram uses to broaden the horizons of about 70 students enrolled in the English language development program that she heads at the school. She came up with the idea of a Thanksgiving dinner two years ago after learning that her students were perplexed by the surprise break from school.

"I was talking to my kids and they said they had no idea what Thanksgiving was about," Ingram said.

She shared the experience with the Aspen Thrift Store Ladies, who encouraged her to start the dinner. The Ladies volunteered to help serve food and clean. A tip from one of them led to funding for the event from the Steere Foundation.

There were about 150 students and their family members at the inaugural Thanksgiving Dinner at the high school. Last year, the numbers swelled to more than 200. Similar attendance was expected Tuesday night.

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Ingram has made it a habit to go to the homes of her English language development students with personal invitations for the dinner.

"One of my big things is parent involvement," Ingram said. Parents who are new to the country and don't speak English are often reluctant to get involved in school matters, she said. Making the personal visit assures them they have someone they can communicate with and makes them feel welcomed.

"After that first time, they're excited to get involved with the schools," Ingram said. That's a key building block of a better community, she added.

Newcomers to the country are targeted for the feast. Students in the English language development program have typically been in the U.S. fewer than three years. Many of the students are from Mexico and Central America, but Ingram said she has students from Asia, the Philippines and Peru, as well.

In addition to the Thrift Shop Ladies, volunteers at the feast include students in Key Club and Leadership Club as well as civic leaders. Ingram said the event has united Anglo and Latino students at Basalt High School who otherwise might not have jelled.

It all comes together for a simple reason. "Food is kind of our common language at Thanksgiving dinner," she said.

Katherine Sand, a Thrift Store volunteer, has volunteered at the dinner the past two years.

"This dinner is a beautiful, simple — though logistically complicated — labor of love and a true expression of what Thanksgiving in our community ought to be, involving the perfect Roaring Fork Valley patchwork of a high school community, volunteers and some businesses and individuals who have donated money or goods in-kind," Sand said in an email. "It's as close to Thanksgiving at home as you can manage at a high school."

After two successful dinners, this year's event almost didn't happen. The woman who catered the dinner the past two years, a friend of Ingram's, had to leave town on a family matter. Ingram said she didn't think she could pull off the event without the expertise and generosity of her friend. Another teacher at the high school, who also works summers at the Roaring Fork Club, was aware of her plight and talked to officials at the club. Chef Vincent Russo "jumped in" and volunteered to take over preparations, Ingram said. The Aspen City Market was among stores and other businesses that donated to the cause.

Preparations included 100 pounds of turkey, 7 liters of gravy, 40 pounds of mashed potatoes and 36 pies. Those are the ingredients for great cultural understanding.

scondon@aspentimes.com