PAWCATUCK — Assembling 500 cardboard boxes was a task St. Michael School seventh-graders tackled with gusto upstairs at the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center. 

Downstairs, eighth-graders were emptying shelves on Thursday to make room for Thanksgiving foods that volunteers would pack into the 500 boxes on Saturday and Sunday.  

Seeing the large quantity of donated canned cranberry sauce, peas and corn, as well as boxes of stuffing and jars of gravy was astonishing to Katie Danaher, 12, who is in seventh grade.

“I thought there would be a few shelves — this is way more than I thought,” she said. “It’s very eye-opening about how much is really needed in the community.”

The stacks of food being readied for distribution also surprised Kaelie Kennedy, 13, an eighth-grader. 

“It shows how many people are donating,” she said. “It’s great to see how much people care about the community. It’s hard to wrap my mind around it.” 

On Saturday and Sunday, volunteers were packing all 500 boxes full of canned goods, plus fresh onions, potatoes, apples and oranges, and a frozen turkey. 

Doris Messina, principal of St. Michael School, said seventh- and eighth-graders from the chool have volunteered at the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center at Thanksgiving for about 15 years. 

She said she thought that the students “start to realize that there are people who need help right in their own community, that’s one of the reasons why we do it,” she said. “They are all required to do a certain amount of community service each trimester but this opens their eyes to the fact that there are people, even right down the road, who aren’t sure where their food is coming from.” 

Susan Sedensky, executive director of the center, said 490 boxes were given out last year and she expected to give boxes to 500 families this year. 

“On Sunday we will be delivering to about 100 people who are handicapped,” she said. “And the rest is people coming in until Wednesday and we always have people come in that we don’t expect.” 

Sedensky said people receiving food are required to be signed up as a client at the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center. 

Though the number of dinners might seem high, the center serves far more families during the year, Sedensky said. 

“The number is really 1,400 — that’s how many used the pantry last year,” she said. “We see a lot of seniors coming in, people with medical needs, families. It just runs the gamut.”

Giving people food for the holidays provides more than a meal, it allows residents the financial latitude to heat their homes and fill up their cars with gas, Sedensky said. 

“What I’m talking about a lot is that people don’t have heat right now so they are making decisions about how do I pay for my heat to stay on, how do I pay for food, so this helps them have a warm house and they can spend their money elsewhere,” she said. “Or, people need to get to work, they need gas for their car. It’s just very expensive to live in our area and this is helping people so they can meet another need.” 

And helping children see the need is good for the community, she said. 

“It’s good for the kids to know there really is this need, that’s it’s local and real,” she said. 

Taking a break from moving canned goods from one room to another, Jake Furtado, 14, an eighth-grader, said volunteering at the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center for his second year in a row was raising his awareness of the needs in his community. 

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve matured and become a lot more aware of people in need of help in the community,” he said. “Basically we’re just trying to make their days better and a little easier.” 

chewitt@thewesterlysun.com