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West Hartford Resident Finds Her Calling During Pandemic

West Hartford resident Pamela Pearson. Photo credit: Ron Pearson

Pamela Pearson has been spearheading the preparation and delivery of meals to Favarh group homes and supported apartments.

Submitted by Penny Phillips, Favarh

It all started with an invitation to tea.

West Hartford resident Pamela Pearson was introduced by a mutual friend to Stephanie Hood, director of finance and operations at Favarh – The Arc of the Farmington Valley. Not long after, Pearson’s phone rang. It was Hood with a proposal to become a volunteer cook for a new meal delivery program Favarh was starting.

The opportunity really connected with Pearson. Her daughter is a former athlete with Special Olympics. So naturally Pearson has a heart for the intellectually and developmentally disabled adult residents Favarh supports on a 24/7 basis in local group homes and apartments.

Favarh Executive Director Stephen Morris and Hood met with Pearson to discuss their vision for the new program and how she might fit in as a lead volunteer. “We talked about the need for a meal delivery program for the eight group homes and two apartment complexes where Favarh residents live. And how these meals would benefit even more individuals once the new Favarh-supported apartments were finished in Canton and Bloomfield,” said Morris. “Pam was more than willing to jump right into the project and take on the task of building this new program from scratch.”

Retired from Hartford Public Schools as a district cook manager of seven years, Pearson was no stranger to feeding people in large numbers. “I enjoy cooking. I love entertaining. I owned a tea party business and a catering business before I worked for Whole Foods and then Hartford Public Schools.”

So Pearson started the task at hand by developing 20 sample menus.

“I like to cook with recipes from American Test Kitchen Magazine. I picked out meals that I knew my daughter liked and the students in the school liked,” she explained, like one pot meals, casseroles, and meals made in sheet pans. “I love sheet pan cooking and I love a good casserole.”

The most challenging aspect for Pearson has been expanding the recipes for 8-10 people to meals for 80-100. Timing became another concern – making sure her meals were ready in time to be delivered to the homes. “I need to plan ahead and prefer to get some of the cooking done the day before when there’s time,” she explained.

Pearson’s partner in this endeavor is Favarh Transportation Manager Brian Singer, who is also a West Hartford resident. Brian’s full-time job was suddenly and drastically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic which forced almost all his department’s 80 drivers and vehicles to power down. “When the virus hit, we were required by the Connecticut Department of Developmental Services to stop providing day and employment programs to the 350 people we serve each day at our facilities – many with door to door transportation.”

Singer received a call very much like the one that Pearson received from Hood, his supervisor, asking if he would take on the coordination of Favarh’s meal delivery program.

“It was just after the time when the Coronavirus forced shutdowns and I was thrilled to be asked and become involved. I love to cook and do a lot of the cooking for my family. And I personally know almost all the residents who I consider good friends. It was a chance to make an impact and do something really special and needed,” said Singer.

Singer works with Pearson to coordinate the meal planning, grocery shopping and delivery of the meals. It’s a true team effort that involves both them and their families. “We split up the route three ways. And now we have it down to a science – the delivery doesn’t take long at all. And it feels great to make the hand-off of the meals to the staff at the homes with directions for warming and serving,” says Singer.

Although the meals are prepared from published recipes, that doesn’t stop Pearson from making changes to the written directions. “I do make a lot of changes,” she admits. Last week the recipe called for mushrooms. But because of a resident’s preference, she substituted cauliflower. “My kids are always complaining I never write down the changes I make. I’m getting better at it.”

Pearson insists that she’s just a home cook and not a real chef. But she has a ServSafe certificate and keeps it up-to-date. So she knows the ins and outs of safety which is especially important in the age of COVID-19. “I cook with my hair in a net, with gloves, and now wearing a mask.” One of the most important and unforeseen aspects to the program is the need to keep residents safe from the virus outside and the Meal Delivery program is helping to do just that.

Plans for the future are still formulating and include the possibility of more chefs becoming involved including local restaurants. New England Pasta Company in Avon has already been making meals for the residents once a week. Favarh is also finishing construction on an industrial-size teaching kitchen with a café space on their campus in Canton which may become part of the program. The idea is to build the program slowly and find the right partners to help provide as many home-cooked, healthy and comforting meals as possible.

For people wishing to support the residents, Favarh has a donation page found at favarh.org/give.

Pamela Pearson’s Mexican Lasagna. Photo credit: Ron Pearson

Mexican Lasagna

Serves 6-8

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and cut into ½ inch pieces
  • 1 onion, chopped fine
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon minced canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1 ½ pounds ground pork (or ground turkey can be substituted – do not use fat-free ground turkey)
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 2 cups frozen corn, thawed
  • 1 (15-ounce) can pinto beans, rinsed
  • 1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained
  • 6 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 18 (6-inch) corn tortillas (or substitute corn chips)
  • 12 ounces Colby Jack cheese, shredded (3 cups)

1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add bell peppers, onion, and ½ teaspoon salt and cook until softened, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in garlic, chipotle, chili powder, and ¼ teaspoon pepper and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in pork and cook, breaking up meat with wooden spoon, until no longer pink, 5 to 8 minutes.

2. Stir in flour and cook 1 minute. Gradually stir in broth and bring to simmer. Stir in corn, beans, and tomatoes and simmer until mixture is slightly thickened and flavors have blended, about 10 minutes. Off heat, stir in ¼ cup cilantro and lime juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

3. Meanwhile, adjust oven racks to upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 450 degrees. Brush both sides of tortillas with remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Spread tortillas over the baking sheets (some overlapping is fine) and bake until soft and pliable, 2 to 4 minutes.

4. Spread one-third of pork mixture over bottom of 13 by 9-inch baking dish. Top with 6 tortillas, overlapping 13×9-inch baking dish. Top with 6 tortillas, overlapping as needed, and sprinkle with remaining 1 cup cheese.

5. Bake on upper rack until filling is bubbling and topping is golden brown, about 15 minutes. Let casserole cool for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining cilantro and serve.

Favarh (pronounced “FAY-var”) was founded in 1958 by eight local families who all wanted a better life for their children with intellectual disabilities. Today, Favarh supports more than 350 children, adults, seniors and families throughout the Greater Farmington Valley area and beyond. Visit favarh.org.

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