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Life of the party

Charlestown volunteers help new neighbors feel right at home with good food, friendly conversation

Created date

March 8th, 2017
Charlestown Dining Ambassador volunteers welcome new residents each month.

Charlestown Dining Ambassador volunteers welcome new residents each month.

Barbara and David Weaver felt welcomed from the moment they first set foot in their new apartment at Charlestown last October. But it was dinner with their new neighbors a few weeks later that made them feel right at home. 

The Towson, Md., couple received a dinner invitation from Charlestown’s Dining Ambassador Program, a resident-run group that welcomes new neighbors to the community. 

“It was the icing on the cake!” says Barbara. “It was just delightful to be able to meet other new residents, and the ambassadors made us feel extremely welcome. It also introduced us to the Refectory [buffet-style dining room]. There are so many restaurants at Charlestown, we hadn’t yet had the opportunity to eat there, but we’ve been back several times since then. Looking forward, the Dining Ambassador Program is something I would probably even find pleasure being part of myself.”

Sally Pound and Mary Ann Ressler organize the dinner parties. Each month, Sally and Mary Ann plan one dinner party in each of Charlestown’s four restaurants: The Atrium, Fireside, Chesapeake, and Refectory. Both women were relative newcomers themselves back in 2008 when they got wind of the program and volunteered as cochairs for the group. 

“Mary Evans, the community resources manager here at Charlestown, asked if we were interested in running the program,” says Sally. “Another resident had come up with the idea but didn’t have the time to organize it. That’s where we came in. The idea was that there would be no staff, no sales, just us.”

Wine and dine

Working from a list of people who recently moved to Charlestown, the two women schedule dinner dates, mail invitations, and plan the details of the dinner with Charlestown’s Dining Department. They also enlist the help of volunteers from each Charlestown neighborhood who greet the guests and dine at the table. Before dinner, invited guests are treated to complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvres in the lounge area outside each restaurant. 

“Moving to a new place is a big change, and I think meeting people who are going through the same experience helps new residents feel more at home. “It also gives people an opportunity to develop friendships,” says Mary Ann.

“We have met people living here from all over the world,” says Sally. “We’ve had people discover they went to the same school or grew up in the same neighborhood. One time, I met a resident who came all the way from a small suburb outside Milwaukee where I grew up. It turns out we went to the same high school. Over the years, we have even had couples who met at our dinners and are still together.” 

Recipe for success

Since their first dinner party eight years ago, Sally and Mary Ann have entertained more than 1,200 new residents, nearly half of the people who live at the Catonsville community. To help ensure everything goes smoothly, they coordinate with professionals like Jim Basham, dining services director at Charlestown.  

“I can’t say enough about the program,” says Basham. “The residents put so much time and energy into this program behind the scenes—hours and hours. The new residents who have attended the dinners are extremely gratified by the fact that folks have taken the time to make them feel welcome. It’s just a really special event for them.” 

“As often as possible, members of our dining team—myself, the executive chef, the assistant director of dining—will visit the table during dinner and talk with the residents about the dining program, answer any questions they have, and just make them feel welcome,” he says.

Gathering feedback

After each dinner, Sally and Mary Ann prepare a written report with feedback on how the meal went, if the guests were happy, and how the staff performed. Sally says the positive feedback is what keeps them going. 

“A lot of time and work go into it, but we enjoy it,” says Sally. “We’ve had so many people stop to thank us or call to tell us how much they enjoyed themselves. In the beginning, I could remember everyone, but now there’s no way, it’s just too many people. We had one couple tell us at the end of dinner that it was the best thing they had experienced since moving. It’s wonderful to see what a positive impact the dinners are having. It’s only one evening, but it seems to be leaving quite an impression.”