The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 16, 2005


Huge party for victims of Hurricane Katrina raises over $16,000

A Cajun Festival on September 9 brings Carlisle residents together for food, music, and an opportunity to donate funds to aid victims of the recent hurricane disaster in Louisiana and Mississippi. (Photo by Michael Saylor)
Suppose you gave a party and invited more than 300 people. Now imagine having only three days to plan the event. That's what Dian Cuccinello and Alison Saylor did last week, with the assistance of a long list of Carlisle residents and friends. The Cajun Festival held on the Town Common on September 9 ultimately attracted an estimated 450 participants and raised over $16,000 for hurricane relief.

But with three days to plan, how did they ever manage to pull it off?

Dian Cuccinello (Photo by Lois d'Annunzio)
It was late morning on Tuesday, September 6. East Street resident and First Religious Society (FRS) member Dian Cuccinello called Alison Saylor, also an FRS member, and discovered that her friend was frustrated not to be involved in any tangible action to help the flood evacuees. "We're not doing anything!" exclaimed an exasperated Saylor. "What can we do?"

In an attempt to answer her friend's question, Cuccinello scanned an e-mail she had received from the Unitarian Universalist church in Littleton, whose crisis-response task force had brainstormed a list of ideas for helping hurricane victims. One item on the list caught Cuccinello's attention: a Cajun-style feast and community fundraiser.

Coincidentally, in past months the two women had discussed the idea of producing a Cajun dinner for the church's biannual service auction — they just never imagined their efforts would go to such a dire cause. Cuccinello is a professional caterer and Saylor is a former project manager with a long resume in volunteer coordination (she was one of the founders of the Pig 'n' Pepper Festival, a now-defunct annual Carlisle School fundraiser). Together, they have collaborated several times in the past to put on gala events. What happened next is best described in the email that Cuccinello dashed off to members of the Parish Committee at the First Religious Society. She wrote:

Alison Saylor (Photo by Alex Parker)

Why don't we have a Cajun Festival of food and music, and hold it on the Green next Friday night at 6:00! Disasters strike without warning why can't we? I've got music, and I've got recipes!

Parish Committee chair Alan Cameron immediately offered his approval. "It looked like they had it all together, so I got out of their way," he says. "At FRS and in Carlisle overall, we have a lot of committed people who know how to accomplish things spontaneously with minimal supervision and organization."

First, Saylor and Cuccinello attacked the problem of publicity. Not only was the event scheduled for three days hence, but because of the newspaper's summer schedule, it was a week without a Mosquito published on Friday. So Alison and Dian drew up a flyer listing the time, place and menu and sent it out to the entire mailing list of the FRS. Within hours, the email had circulated throughout Carlisle and beyond — as evidenced by a non-Carlisle resident who asked for permission to distribute the email to her co-workers at Sun Microsystems in Burlington. Laura Snowdon, an active member of the Carlisle School Association, received the e-mail and offered to ask Superintendent Marie Doyle to include a notice about the event in the weekly schoolwide newsletter, which Doyle promptly agreed to (with the one provision that the "BYOB" mention be eliminated). Darragh Murphy, who lives in one of the most prominent houses in Carlisle Center, agreed enthusiastically to put a sign advertising the event in her yard, clearly visible to any driver who passed through the rotary. Larry Bearfield, proprietor of Ferns Country Store, publicized the event to his own newsletter mailing list.
Alison introduces the Master of Ceremonies Ed LeClair as the band sets up. (photo by Alex Parker)

Meanwhile, Nadine Bishop drew up a phone chain of FRS members, asking ten people each to call ten other people who might be able to help out. By the end of the day, seventy-five people had been reached by phone. Saylor returned home to find her eight-year-old son Gavin calling all his friends with the rather formal lead-in statement, "I would like to inform you of an event."

From that point on, the three-day timeline reads like a directory of Carlisle residents, in which dozens of locals stepped forward to offer whatever skills and talents they could. FRS Parish Committee chair Alan Cameron and town selectman Tim Hult brainstormed on possible obstacles to overcome: parking, permitting, alcohol consumption (it was a BYOB event, but town rules state that alcohol can be consumed only on the church side of the Common), Board of Health regulations, abutters' concerns. Ed LeClair provided his services as MC for the event, and Oxfam America president Ray Offenheiser of Westford Street agreed to be keynote speaker, giving attendees an overview of how his organization is striving to get assistance to some of the poorest areas hit by the hurricane.

The town of Carlisle danced until they dropped at the fundraiser (Photo by Lois d'Annunzio)

Tom Rourk parked a truck outside the First Religious Society for townspeople to drop off donations of clothes, toiletries, and other goods, with a promise to drive the truckload to Otis Air Force Base later that weekend. Dian's catering assistant, Zelange, not only assisted Dian with heavy lifting at Costco but also donated the soda herself. Jack O'Connor offered two-way radios to help event coordinators keep track of each other during the party. Bob Koning, David Flannery and Gary Davis offered their expertise on municipal lighting and electricity. The Carlisle Police Department helped coordinate traffic and parking around the event, and the Garden Club offered card tables.

And when Cuccinello had qualms about making the Mississippi mud cake she had initially planned on, she called on Peter Kimball of Kimball Farm Ice Cream, who went to work designing a new recipe for a dessert he called "Mississippi Mud Slide." Kimball then donated ice cream, freezers, and servers for the event.

The town of Carlisle ate until they were stuffed at the fundraiser.(Photo by Lois d'Annunzio)
With the promise of a delicious menu including catfish, jambalaya and pulled pork; Cajun dance music from two professional bands — the Boogaloo Swamis and City of Roses, both of whom donated their services for free — and fine weather in the forecast, organizers crossed their fingers as Friday evening arrived. Cuccinello expected two hundred people but promised enough food for three hundred. "In fact, we think about 450 people actually bought meal tickets, and somehow Dian managed to feed all of them," Saylor says. "Many of the event volunteers went without dinner that night, though."

Out on the Common, neighbors greeted each other, savored delicious food, and relaxed under the stars while children got their faces painted, blew bubbles and danced. In contrast to the high-energy festivities outside, a more contemplative mood prevailed inside the church, where visitors could view a slide show of the hurricane-damaged regions and children could draw pictures or write messages of sympathy to be sent to their peers in Louisiana and Mississippi.

The Golsons lining up for the food.
Not only did the event bring in an estimated gross total of over $16,000, contributions are still coming in. Exhausted but elated by its success, Saylor says that she woke up on Sunday morning full of pride to live in such a generous community. "Sometimes it takes a crisis to generate this much collective energy," she reflects.

And, worn out as she may be, Saylor will not have much time to rest. She and Cuccinello are co-chairs of the Gilligan's Island-themed party to be held Saturday, September 17

[Ed note: For those who missed last Friday's event, donations are still being collected at Ferns Country Store, or can be made online at: or]

2005 The Carlisle Mosquito