Groton - A full-sized school bus parked at a Route 12 supermarket Sunday morning may have seemed curious, but the bright pink sign hanging in front of it answered any questions.
"Help us Fill the Bus! With Thanksgiving Food Items."
Shoppers at the Stop & Shop responded in droves to the fifth annual Academy of the Holy Family's Fill the Bus Thanksgiving food drive as they donated dozens of frozen turkeys, canned and frozen vegetables, bread and rolls, gravy, potatoes cranberry sauce, pasta and desserts to help fill Thanksgiving baskets for needy families throughout southeastern Connecticut.
About 15 students in the school's Teens in Action program stationed themselves at the supermarket for seven hours Sunday, pausing for a pizza lunch on the bus. Students handed out lists of items especially needed for the baskets, but accepted all donations, including cash. At the end of the drive, they took stock of the donations and went into the store themselves to buy items that appeared to be in short supply.
"I love it," ninth-grader Kelsey Nagy of Haverhill, Mass., said after loading bags of food onto the bus. "We're getting a lot of donations."
Roxanne Rehberg, a teacher, adviser and coach at the academy, came up with the Fill the Bus idea five years ago when the Sisters of Charity at the school noticed donations for the annual Thanksgiving baskets were starting to drop off. The school has rotated locations over the years to different stores throughout the region both to spread the requests for donations and to spread the word that the small Catholic girls' high school in Baltic represents the entire region, Rehberg said.
The school bus delivered the goods to the Academy of the Holy Family in Baltic Sunday afternoon, putting the frozen food into the freezer, the cold items into the cafeteria coolers and the dry goods on the cafeteria tables for sorting. Today, students will form assembly lines to fill food baskets for 100 or more families in the region.
Marguerite Langlais of Gales Ferry saw a news clip of the food drive on the television news Sunday morning. Before she had a chance to respond, her husband, Don, called from the store on his way to the New England Patriots football game to tell her about the food drive.
"He said 'go bring that turkey we bought yesterday. We'll get another one,'" Marguerite Langlais said, handing the bird to students standing outside one of the store doors.
Another man handed a frozen turkey to students at the other door.
"This is for you," he said. "The beer is mine."
Students were well organized in groups, several at each of the two doors handing out lists of items needed and asking customers if they can help "fill the bus." They offered muffins to donors on their way out of the store. Other students and school staff were waiting to haul carriages of full grocery bags and turkeys back to the bus.
By almost noon, the students had collected 30 turkeys, triple last year's number, Rehberg said. That total didn't include the donation of $500 worth of turkeys brought to the school by the Cima family of Canterbury.
Lauren Cima of Griswold graduated from the Academy of the Holy Family three years ago and returns each year for the food drive. She said her family makes the donation in memory of her 18-year-old brother, Ricky Cima, who was killed in September 2009 when his pickup truck was struck by a train in Plainfield. She said the family also makes donations to Ricky's school, Harvard Ellis Technical High School in Danielson.
"I enjoy it," Lauren Cima said. "I like giving back."
Sunday's bright sunny weather, although cool temperatures in the 40s, kept students' spirits up. Sunday was freshman Amy Roberts' 14th birthday. Her sister, sophomore Mary Roberts, brought out two balloons tied to a box of snack crackers to celebrate. One said "Happy Birthday" and the other was in the shape of a bright yellow dump truck.
"They didn't have a school bus," Mary Roberts said.