Students with disabilities serve up Thanksgiving cheer

Nov 27, 2019

The welcoming smell of turkey, apple and spices wafted down the corridors of Dartmouth Middle School on Tuesday morning as eight students from the Promoting Academics and Life Skills program made Thanksgiving dinner for their friends.

Apron-clad kids from the PALS program chatted to guests and served up food that they made themselves, with help from kids in the PASS (Promoting Academics and Social Skills) program and with guidance and supervision from their teachers every step of the way.

Led by special education teacher Elizabeth Dufault, the program focuses on teaching children with disabilities life and vocational skills as well as academics like math and literacy.

“We do a lot of cooking. We have our cafe here on Wednesdays, so the kids do a lot of cooking for that,” Dufault said.

She came in at 6:30 in the morning to put the turkey in the oven. 

“I do the turkey, and the kids do everything else,” she said. “The kids do it all. They plan it, they vote on what they want to have, what they want to serve.”

According to Dufault, they also discuss the budget and make their own invitations to hand out to guests. Each child can invite up to three teachers to share a meal on their lunch breaks from 11 to noon. 

Afterwards, the students themselves sit down to eat with kids from the PASS program as well as their learning partners, other middle schoolers who pair up with the PALS to help with school work and participate in activities like ice skating and bowling.

Many of the kids had been working in the kitchen since 8 a.m. to get ready to serve the meal.

This is the third year the program has held a “Friendsgiving” celebration, Dufault said.

“Every year we get a little bit better,” she noted as she carved the turkey. “And find better strategies.”

Each year the meal also gets bigger. This year the eight PALS kids served around 20 adults before sitting down with nearly 20 learning partners and kids from the PASS program.

But no matter how much work it is, the kids love it.

“I obviously love to cook,” said seventh grader Alexis Benjamin, who was greeting guests. “I want to be a chef when I grow up.”

Benjamin said she made the apple pies and mashed potatoes. She added that she loves Thanksgiving. “It’s my favorite time of the year,” she said.

Scott August and Avery Botelho, both sixth graders, were serving drinks, including coffee, tea, lemonade, and sparkling cider.

Other chefs included seventh grader Caleb Rapoza, eighth grader Austin Santos, and seventh grader Daniel Howayeck.

Rapoza said his favorite Thanksgiving food is turkey, and Santos said he liked ham. Howayeck said his favorite part of Thanksgiving is watching the big parade on TV with his family.

But his favorite part of the day at school, he said, was “everybody being here.”

“I think it’s awesome that they’re doing this,” said eighth grader Julia Caron, a learning partner who came for her first Friendsgiving feast. “I could smell [the food] from way down in the hallway.”

Teachers and students trickled in during their lunch periods to eat and chat in the festive classroom, which was decorated with autumn leaves and pumpkins for the occasion.

Guests included Middle School Principal Darren Doane, Assistant Principal Sarah Decas, and School Resource Officer David Tavares from the Dartmouth Police Department, among others.

Even Tracy Oliveira, Director of Teaching and Learning for the school district, stopped by. 

“It’s amazing to see the kids pull it all together,” she said. “They work hard, they do the work behind the scenes, and they’re fabulous at serving and being personable.”

She added that the food was delicious. “I was very impressed!”

It was a sentiment echoed at the table, as Principal Doane was heard to exclaim more than once: “This is delicious!”