TORONTO – Martha Randall had three extra plates at her Thanksgiving dinner table last year.
Not for family, not for friends, but for guests she has never met.
Randall took part in Share Thanksgiving — a volunteer-run, Toronto-turned-national program that pairs families, new to Canada, with Canadian families to share a Thanksgiving meal.
“There are so many new immigrants to Canada and they can get pretty isolated in their communities, without knowing the language really well or without knowing the city very well.”
“I just felt it would be a great experience for us to reach out and welcome someone into our home.”
Both Randall and her husband’s love for travel spurred them to open up their dining room, she said.
“It’s always so great when you’re a stranger in a strange land to be taken in with the local folk.”
Randall prepared a traditional Thanksgiving feast with all the fixings for a couple — he from Colombia, she from Ecuador — and their young son.
“It was a really lovely meeting,” she said. “We were both kind of vulnerable. ‘Who are these people? What have we’ve done?'”
“And yet, as soon as they came in, they were so gracious. We had such fun talking to them about the Thanksgiving custom.”
For dessert, her 12-year-old daughter insisted she serve an apple crumble with the Canadian maple leaf formed in its topping.
“They really liked that,” Randall said.
Share Thanksgiving, which bills itself as a “turkey-based matching service,” connects hosts and newcomers based on family size.
Last year, the program piloted in Toronto, pairing more than 100 families, said Robyn Chatwin-Davies, the Canadian director working to expand Share Thanksgiving nationwide.
This year, it is expanding into major Canadian cities: Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax.
“We’ve had an amazing response,” she said.
“People are really keen to host Canadian newcomers who’ve otherwise never had a Thanksgiving.”
The program was born out of the generous hospitality founder Parker Mitchell would encounter in his travels, she said.
In her own frequent travels, Chatwin-Davies would often share a meal with the locals.
“I did a lot of travelling in southern Africa and when travelling, people were so excited to open their door and welcome you into their home.”
“We really wanted to bring that feeling back to Canada, that feeling of making newcomers feel welcome and opening our doors, sharing our traditions with them.”
The program works with local agencies, including its lead agency, the North York Community House in Toronto, for outreach.
So far, more than 700 families signed up — about 400 of them newcomers, Chatwin-Davies said. The program is looking for at least 100 more host families, she said.
“Setting an extra place at your Thanksgiving dinner isn’t too much extra work on your end but it will mean the world of the difference to somebody who has never had Thanksgiving before.”
Randall and her family have kept in touch with their guest family, inviting them for Christmas last year, sharing a traditional Ecuadorian meal at their home and even receiving a Spanish-speaking lesson over the telephone.
“It’s really become a kind of friendship,” she said.
Chatwin-Davies said the idea of inviting strangers for dinner can seem nerve-wracking.
“It’s totally natural to feel nervous about inviting a stranger into your home or to be a stranger going into someone’s home but what we found is that when people break bread and they’re sharing a meal, pretty soon all of that melts away.”