Located in the coastal city of Portland, Maine, the Howard C. Reiche Community School is a true melting pot where 29 languages are spoken and 22 countries are represented.
With such diversity, it can be challenging to find just the right event to bring the community together. For instance, some families aren’t comfortable with auctions or evening social gatherings because of their religious or cultural beliefs.
But the PTO seems to have found a perfect fit in its annual potluck dinner.
Now in its 10th year, the Multicultural Potluck is typically held in late winter with an emphasis on everyone getting to know each other better. Each year, it draws a bigger crowd; about 400 adults and children attended in 2011-12.
Families are encouraged to bring a favorite dish that represents their culture or is one they simply enjoy. Past favorites have included African samosas, sushi, rice and beans, spaghetti, lasagna, slow cooker meals, and burritos.
“It’s a wonderful, feel-good event that’s made us proud of who we are,” says Jeanne Swanton, PTO cochair and treasurer.
About 10 volunteers, a mix of both parents and teachers, run the event each year. Because it is based around community-donated food, the cost is low. Swanton estimates that the group spends about $150 on paper goods and other incidentals.
The Multicultural Potluck is held in a recreational center that is part of the school complex. As the community is economically diverse and many families do not have cars, the location makes it easier for all to join in.
Most of the work for this event comes from making decorations and setting up the space. At the event, volunteers place food on long buffet tables in an open area. The buffet is surrounded by round tables covered with craft paper. Each round table is set with crayons, markers, and puzzles for children. Families can also gather and eat at the tables. The informal atmosphere encourages families to mingle and get to know each other.
Not all families are able to donate meals, however, and because the PTO wants to keep the night pressure-free for attendees, it works with several local stores and restaurants each year to donate food items. This year, local shops donated pizzas, cookie platters, and loaves of bread.
Swanton says the teachers are key to making the event a success. For example, they are typically in charge of decorations. Last year, they helped students create maps and flags from their country of origin, which were then displayed at the event.
“They were so beautiful, we kept them up for months,” she says.
Through the years, the PTO has fine-tuned the potluck to keep up with its ever-changing population. It actually ran as a spaghetti supper for years. Then, as the population grew more diverse and many families did not eat meat (in the spaghetti sauce), the group decided to turn the event into a multicultural gathering that everyone could enjoy.
One of the greatest benefits of the day is to see how happy it makes the kids, Swanton adds. When the children arrive, she says, they are always excited “to show off their parents.”
Howard C. Reiche Community School PTO
350 students, grades K-5
$20,000 annual budget
The Howard C. Reiche Community School finds common ground for its diverse population by sharing favorite dishes.
Educational opportunities: The PTO adds little touches, such as placing quizzes about various countries on the tables, as a way to promote learning.
Dishing it up: Families are asked to label their dishes and list ingredients so the entire community can learn more about the food. To facilitate this process, the PTO sends home index cards with the event flyer for families to use.
That’s entertainment: Last year, the PTO asked a group of 3rd graders to perform at the event. They had been learning Middle Eastern drumming during an after-school enrichment program and were invited back for this year’s event.