Conaway makes Curbside Lunch special

June 1, 2022

After retiring from her office manager job in 2016, Denise Conaway just wanted to find some volunteer work to help give back to the community.

Little did she know that would lead to helping make about 150 lunches three or four days a week for seniors in the Town of Perinton.

Denise has become what Chef Preston Bennett describes as his right-hand woman with the hugely successful Curbside Lunch program.

“No Denise, no Curbside,” Bennett said. “She comes up with new ideas all the time and I would have to say since she started, she has stepped up 100 fold.”

Denise originally volunteered with the senior lunchtime program in 2016, but stopped after a few times. She got to know Bennett more in 2018 when he and her husband Paul were in the hospital at the same time.

When Bennett had to have hip surgery in 2020, she same back to work as a part-timer. The 55+ program was serving about 30 senior lunches a day pre-COVID and Denise took over leadership of the program. She would lead the way again in 2021 when Bennett had surgery on his other hip.

COVID shut down the PCC in March of 2020. In June 2020, Bennett and 55+ Director Kelly Attridge came up with the Curbside Lunch program to get seniors affordable, healthy lunches without them even having to get out of their cars.

They started at about 43 lunches a day, were at 75 after two weeks and the avalanche has not stopped yet.

“I’m the 6th child in a family of 13, so I’m used to a lot of cooking,” Conaway said. “It is a lot of work, but we have a lot of fun. Preston is the best person I have ever worked with in any job. It takes a lot to shake him up. He is patient, he listens to what I have to say and he doesn’t try to change what you are trying to say.”

Conaway was a little uneasy about coming back to work during COVID, so she tried to lighten things up by bringing in music. Next thing she knew, her a Bennett were dancing in the kitchen and then the rest of the staff would come join in.

“When I leave the house in the morning, my husband says ‘go have fun,’ ’’ Denise said. “I’m not saying every day is perfect, but we do have a lot of fun.”

Bennett is someone who does a lot, always moving. He is also a perfectionist who has a hard time delegating. He admits that when Curbside started, he and Denise went through some rocky spots. But now …

“There is no communication between us, she will just look at me and know what needs to be done,” he said. “We just trust in each other. I walk through something with her and the next time she just does it. She is loyal to a fault. I trust her to lead all the volunteers and she just does it.”

Conaway, who keeps a binder of all past menus that lists how many sold and a binder of Bennett’s recipes, often gets to pick the meals. One recent week, the menu was 100% Conaway.

“The Curbside is my baby,” Bennett said. “When you are raising a baby, sometimes it is tough to let go and have someone else help. With her willingness to learn, I know I can have her do anything.”

Bennett and Conaway even decided together how far they could take the Curbside program.

“When we got to 125 (a day) we talked about it and we just decided we could do more,” she said. “It is fun getting the big numbers. I have to admit, it is a bit of a rush.

“And where can you get this kind of meal? It is fresh, we shop locally and it is cheaper than McDonalds. Where can you pay $5.50 for a meal this well-rounded.”

Denise and her husband Paul, who is a part-time building manager in the Perinton Community Center, moved to Perinton from Vermont in 1981. They raised two kids in town

“Preston gets all the press – rightfully so – but Denise is the person behind the scenes who keeps the machine running,” Attridge said. “I’m not so sure we could have a better person in that spot.

“Denise is one of the hardest working and humble people I know.  She has the foresight to recognize what needs to be done and tackles those duties with grace and finesse. She is kind and patient with our team of volunteers.  She is an invaluable asset to our team and our curbside program would not have similar success without her!”