Thanksmas for all: Maddon wraps up visit with annual dinner, giveaway

December 19, 2016

By Kelly Monitz | Standard-Speaker

Children and adults quickly filled long tables set with decorations made by area school children and a quartet played Christmas music in the cafeteria of the Hazleton One Community Center as the annual Thanksmas feast got underway Sunday afternoon.

Chicago Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon started the free meal as a community outreach for those in need when he was still with the Tampa Bay Rays, and brought the tradition to his hometown Hazleton, where he co-founded the Hazleton Integration Project as a way to unite a divided community.

Anglos and Latinos sat side by side dining on a multicultural meal with Polish pierogies, Italian pasta, sausage and meatballs, and Dominican chicken, pork and rice. Volunteers placed salads on tables and delivered drinks and plates with a little bit of everything.

“This is a dream come true for the community,” said Niurka de La Rosa, who made the stewed chicken for the meal and is one of the founding board members.

De La Rosa knew Maddon’s cousin, Elaine Maddon Curry, through the Concerned Parents of the Hazleton Area group and Joe Maddon visited her home, where she also ran a day care, she said.

“Joe came and experienced a lot of people eating, drinking — children running around. He was amazed what he saw at my house,” she said, adding that’s how the idea for HIP started. “This is what we envisioned when we started Concerned Parents.”

People crowded around Maddon and his wife, Jaye, when they arrived for the start of Thanksmas, eager to shake his hand or snap a quick photo with the manager who led his team to a World Series win after a 108-year drought.

He took some extra time with his midget football coach, Jack Seiwell, who Maddon said knowing he was a good athlete, told him back in 1964 to mess up at tryouts so that his team could pick him first. Seiwell said he was amazed how much Maddon remembers.

But the past few days have really been a blur, Maddon said. He hosted a celebrity-studded fundraiser at the Valley Country Club on Friday night and was honored with a “Joe Maddon Day” celebration at the community center Saturday night.

Maddon noted that he’s still trying to wrap his mind around his team winning the World Series and the annual events here in Hazleton come up quick. He has to mentally prepare himself for the annual homecoming.

Maddon, who is honorary chairman of the HIP board, finds what has been accomplished in four short years at the community center nothing less than incredible.

“We’re going to get bigger and better,” he said, adding that the program will be a beacon for the rest of Northeastern Pennsylvania and people can come and see what they’ve done here. “It’s truly remarkable.”

Frank DeAndrea, president of the HIP board, wore his Chicago Cubs socks as he photographed the event, snapping shots of Maddon, diners and volunteers.

One of the volunteers, Barbara Simpson of Hazleton, put various hand lotions out for people to take. She usually volunteers around Thanksmas, she said. Near Simpson’s table was another table filled with handmade hats, scarves and mittens from Stitches of Love, an organization that gives away the items to those in need, said Jackie Getz, who directs the Hazleton chapter.

The Stitches group also donates baby hats to local hospitals, blankets to Brandon’s Forever Home and hats at the local cancer centers, she said. Several people — many of them children — looked through the offerings and took cold weather items .

New to Thanksmas this year was the appearance of Santa and Mrs. Claus, who had gifts for the children attending.

“Every year, it gets better and better,” said Maddon’s mother, Albina, who sat in a corner of the large room taking it all in. “It’s a good thing. It’s nice.”