Dinner is a lasting legacy for little village
Last Saturday night was the 28th year of the Marco Polo Dinner in Geneseo. This is a meal of gargantuan proportions served this year to about 60 people for the purpose of raising money for Covenant House, an institution that cares for and ministers to abandoned and runaway teenagers in major U.S. cities.
The menu for the dinner is built around the voyage of Marco Polo in the 13th century. Our dinner starts with Italian food, since Polo’s home was Venice. However, later courses come from places he visited as he journeyed to China, and of course we have food from the Middle Kingdom itself. Like Marco Polo, we return to Italy for dessert. The meal lasts about 3 hours, and no one leaves to go for a late night snack.
The chefs are largely SUNY Geneseo faculty and alumni, and the servers are current students at the College. In addition to these, there are dishwashers and servers who are the children of many of the cooks and organizers, some of whom have worked at the dinner almost from the time they could walk.
One principle we always adhere to is that every cent that guests pay for the dinner goes to Covenant House. The chefs buy the food they prepare, and an anonymous donor rents St. Mary’s Parish Center in Geneseo. During the course of 28 years, the dinner has provided more than $100,000 to Covenant House. Not bad for a little village hidden away in western New York!
Every year, a different aspect of the dinner catches my special attention. This year it was the young folks who served the food and washed the dishes. There were about 20 undergraduates from the College who spent about 5 hours working. We think of students as typically doing silly or even dangerous things on Saturday night, and of course some do behave irresponsibly, but these young people are volunteering to wait tables and wash dishes. Of course, they eat well, but they are not doing these tasks just for a good meal. They also were all dressed semi-formally, with the young men wearing white shirts and ties. Several guests remarked about how impressed they were with these folks.
Jacob Towsley began working at the dinner when he was about 4 years old, dressed like a miniature adult with a bow tie. Now he is an engineer, married, and father to a young daughter. But he was working in the kitchen along with his mom and dad. Joseph Rutigliano was back from college (Canisius) and helped out, although he did at least as much schmoozing as washing dishes. He too has spent one evening of almost every year of his life working at the Marco Polo Dinner.
Joseph’s mom Deedee has been more or less in charge of the dinner and a major creator of desserts for many years, starting out working at the dinner as a student more than 20 years ago. This year, Joseph’s sister Mary was working, although we will miss her next year when she is studying in Spain. Younger brothers Anthony (Nino) and John were also laboring and eating well. Anthony is currently studying the Italian Renaissance in school and came loaded with a lot of questions for me.
The whole Sawyer family comes, and we have watched their boys grow from infancy into high school students; dad Chuck started working at the dinner as an undergraduate, and he is now our wine steward. This year Matthew McClure is a freshman at SUNY Geneseo, hailing all the way from Wadsworth Street in Geneso. He is a fixture in the kitchen. We used to trip over him, but now he towers over most of us. One of his kitchen sidekicks this year was former Geneseo High School social studies teacher Matt Frahm, now principal of Naples High School. He called me the night before to ask if we needed an extra hand in the kitchen.
Another family that provided a lot of help was the Kellys. Four of the five Kelly kids were hard at work, starting with oldest brother Ben, a star athlete, actor/musician, and student in the Geneseo High School class of 2013. I look forward to many years of Kelly boys and girls and hope that Ben can get home from college next year to work his charm and use his talents with our guests.
The children of two other families are growing up with the tradition of volunteering to raise money to help desperately hurting teenagers. The two Canning boys and the Kreher son and daughter were all charming, beautiful, and knowledgeable. After all, they too have been serving at the dinner since about the time they graduated from potty training.
It is events like Marco Polo Dinner night that make me wonder who would be foolish enough to move away from Geneseo willingly. Obviously, other towns have parallel events that build community as well as raise money. I was privileged to speak at one such event last year in Dansville, and I have attended several others from one end of our county to the other.
When I got home last night, I was tired, too tired to count the money (I now know it is about $2,500). I thought of some kid sleeping in an alley or selling his or her body to survive, and I am saddened by the prevalence of such stories but happy that we could help one of them at least a little.
But then I rejoiced because the kind of community that we build at the dinner and especially with all those who volunteer makes it a little less likely that one of the young ones there will ever run away from home and find the dead end of dreams of fame and wealth in a brothel or a dumpster. If prevention is the best cure, then the Marco Polo Dinner is as valuable to those who do the work as to those who receive the money that we collect.