Some give thanks by giving back

Families open homes to those who would otherwise be alone today

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Southwestern Pennsylvanians are opening their homes and their hearts this holiday, welcoming to their Thanksgiving tables Burmese refugees, Asian college students and others who would otherwise be alone today.

Among those giving thanks by giving to others include the owners of the Green Mango Noodle Hut restaurants, Carnegie Mellon University alumni and individual families from Pittsburgh to Brentwood to Scottdale and beyond.

For years, restaurateurs Mark and Janfong Robinson, natives of Vietnam and Thailand, respectively, hosted 10 or so employees at their home for Thanksgiving. Many of their employees at the Green Mango Noodle Hut restaurants in Regent Square, Wilkins, North Huntingdon and at The Waterfront are from Thailand or refugees from Burma and Laos.

Last year, the Robinsons moved the group dinner to their Penn Center location in Wilkins and hosted 25 employees and their friends. They expect that many or more today.

"A lot of them don't have family members here," said the Robinsons' daughter, Kathy SaeNgian. "We just feel the holidays are about family and spending time with people you love and being thankful for everything you have. Just because someone has no family here doesn't mean they shouldn't share in that holiday tradition.

"[The employees] always are our family. This is our way to show our appreciation of them. The refugees from Burma and Laos don't have anything. We want to help and support them as much as we can both professionally and personally," said Ms. SaeNgian, a former Post-Gazette academic intern who now runs the Waterfront location.

Preparing the desserts -- pies, cookies, apple dumplings -- began last week, she said, and some customers also have pitched in and donated their own desserts. Last night, after the restaurants closed, preparations for today's 5 p.m. buffet feast continued until about midnight and started again about 8 a.m. today.

They will dine on traditional Thanksgiving fare of turkey and its usual accompaniments. But there also will be Thai dishes such as Mrs. Robinson's larb salad -- a mixture of mint, cilantro, chilies, rice powder, fish sauce, lime juice and usually chicken, but in keeping with the spirit of today's holiday, turkey will be substituted.

"An American twist on a traditional Thai dish," is how Ms. SaeNgian described it.

Sharing a twist today will be some 40 CMU students, most of them Asian, who will get to experience an American tradition when 30 alumni welcome them to their homes as part of a first-year program.

It was the brainchild of Linda Dickerson, a CMU alumna and a member of the school's Board of Trustees, and Deborah Kelly, also a CMU alumna who has been very active in alumni affairs and whose husband, M. Satyanarayanan, is a CMU professor of computer science.

"We're very focused on what we can do to improve the lives of the students," Ms. Kelly said in explaining how the two women came to be discussing undergrads in the spring. "Linda said that primarily for Asian students it would be so wonderful for them to experience an American tradition" rather than being alone on Thanksgiving. The idea was born.

The women met with CMU's student affairs department, professors who had hosted students over the years and with alumni relations personnel. E-mails were sent to alumni asking if they would like to host a student and to students to see if they were interested in dining with an alum on Thanksgiving.

Ms. Kelly and Ms. Dickerson then assigned students to alumni from as far away as Trafford, being so careful that they made sure not to send students with allergies to the homes of alumni with animals. Alums whose homes aren't close to CMU will provide their guests with transportation.

Ms. Kelly and her husband, who normally spend Thanksgiving with his family in Washington, D.C., instead will be hosting two students -- an Asian woman and a Canadian man (who had to ask when Thanksgiving was celebrated here). Also, there will be a Danish graduate student who will be brought by computer science professor John Reynolds and his wife, Mary. Other guests will be the Rev. Harold Lewis, rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, Shadyside, and his wife, Claudette.

The program has proved so successful on the first try that it likely will become an annual tradition that will grow, Ms. Kelly said. And, she added, it's possible other universities in the area could follow suit and do the same for their students.

"We're very excited, this being our first year, that it worked out so well. I think the alums hosting are so excited. The staff we worked with got really excited. This is a good way to connect to the university and to get to meet some students, who are amazing.

"I'm sure after [today] I will come away a richer person," Ms. Kelly said. "I will learn more about their cultures and their traditions and that will have made my holiday even more special."


Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.


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