Chocolate lovers delight in decadent day of sweets for a serious cause

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AUBURN — The intoxicating aroma of seriously sweet chocolate treats wafted ever so gently through the lobby of the Hilton Garden Inn on Sunday afternoon. Meanwhile, inside the Auburn hotel’s main ballroom, an eager crowd of more than 100 with an acute affliction (though some might call it an addiction) drifted from station to station sampling everything from chocolate-covered strawberries to chocolate truffles to chocolate-covered cheesecake.

For most attendees the indigestion to follow was well worth the money raised for a program serving thousands of nutritious meals each week to hundreds of senior citizens throughout Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties.

“Those idiots in Washington turned their backs on us, so we’ve got to do something,” said Bob Beane of Standish, who attended the first annual ChocoLArt event to raise money for SeniorsPlus’ Meals on Wheels program. “I would rather see seniors tap into Meals on Wheels than sit at home and have to decide whether or not they’re going to eat or pay rent.”

Based in Lewiston, SeniorsPlus was founded in 1972 as a nonprofit organization offering a network of support, information, services and resources for seniors and adults with special needs and their families. Falling under the SeniorsPlus umbrella is the Area Agency on Aging, which serves seniors in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties by offering information and assistance, nutrition services, social activities and advocacy to help older people remain independent.

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Betsy Sawyer-Manter, executive director of SeniorsPlus, said that Sunday’s event aimed to raise between $2,000 and $3,000 toward the organization’s Meals on Wheels program.

Currently, an army of volunteers prepares and delivers daily hot meals and one weekly frozen meal to about 400 homebound older adults and adults with disabilities living in the tri-county region. Sawyer-Manter also stressed the importance of the personal connection the program offers individuals who might otherwise go days without talking to anyone.

“That visit means so much to people. We may be the only person that person sees during the week,” Sawyer-Manter said. “These are lovely people — lonely people. For so many, it’s not just a meal, it’s a well-being check. It’s socialization. This is so much more than just nutrition.”

Sawyer-Manter said that organizers chose to hold the event in March in honor of it being national Meals on Wheels month. The group initially hoped to just reach their goal of selling 100 of the $35 tickets for the event, but were pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming support from the community. Based on Sunday’s success, Sawyer-Manter said that SeniorsPlus expects to turn ChocoLArt into an annual fundraiser for the organization.

Not only were more than 100 attendees treated to rich chocolate goodies dished up by nine area vendors, but the event also featured a silent auction showcasing more than 50 pieces of local art donated by area painters, crafters, photographers and potters. Rounding out the fundraiser was a three-piece jazz trio, buffet and cash bar.

“It was a great turnout. They had so much of the chocolate displays and artwork donated,” said Sally Garand of Manchester, an employee of one of the event’s main sponsors, Bangor Savings Bank. “(Meals on Wheels) is extremely important. Sometimes it’s the only contact these people have all day.”

A panel of seven judges picked their favorites among the decadent delights. Topping their list of favorite desserts and earning the Judge’s Award was Auburn’s Fireside Inn & Suites’ Chef Theresa Hyatt, whose selections included brownies and chocolate cake.

Gary Davis, food service director for Russell Park Living Center in Lewiston, took the cake for Best Use of Chocolate and Best Display for his sculpted fountain featuring a mermaid.

But winning over the hearts and sweet tooths of those attending the event was Stephanie Bernatchez, owner of Maine Gourmet Chocolates, who walked away with the People’s Choice Award. Working out of the kitchen of her Auburn home for the past 18 years, Bernatchez wowed tastebuds with her chocolate-covered cheesecake, chocolate drizzled popcorn and sea salt chocolate bark.

But like most vendors participating in the event, as well as those attending it, Bernatchez, while happy about her award, was more excited about supporting a worthy community cause.

“I loved it. The turnout was great. A lot of nice people came through, and there were a lot of nice comments,” Bernatchez said. “I think this was a great event for people to get together, and it’s for such a good cause.”

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