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With delivery dinners and to-go turkey, volunteers pivot plans for free holiday meals

As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the state, area churches and nonprofits have had to pivot their plans to provide free holiday meals this year, opting for delivery dinners and to-go turkey dishes instead of their traditional sit-down gatherings.

In Norwich, St. Vincent de Paul Place has handed out more than 1,400 turkeys — hundreds more than in previous years — and plans to distribute over 500 meals on Thanksgiving Day, an increase of at least 25% from its normal annual supply. Rather than hosting a formal dinner in its dining room with elaborate table settings, music and entertainment, the organization will be relying on 27 volunteer delivery drivers to drop off meals at homes throughout Norwich and even more volunteers to hand out to-go turkey dinners for anyone in need of a holiday meal.

During a phone call Tuesday, St. Vincent Executive Director Jill Corbin was busy handing out turkeys even as she spoke, working diligently to make sure everyone who needs a meal, or a turkey to cook themselves, has one. Corbin said the organization had been flooded with calls for days, with more people asking for help putting a turkey dinner on the table this year than ever before.

By Tuesday evening, the organization already helped make a holiday meal possible for nearly 1,500 people.

In addition to the 540 turkeys handed out by its own food pantry program, St. Vincent — run by the Diocese of Norwich — also received 900 turkeys from Connecticut Food Bank's mobile food distribution program. This was the first year the organization had turkeys donated by the food bank to distribute throughout the Norwich community, tripling its normal turkey supply.

And if there has ever been a year the increased supply was needed, Corbin said, it's this one.

“So many people are hurting and so many are hurting for the first time,” she said. “I know how difficult it must be to walk through our doors for the first time and ask for help, so we have tried to make it as fun and easy as possible.”

In addition to the organization's hardworking chefs, Corbin said, volunteers have dedicated so much to make the outpouring of community support possible this season by donating ingredients, supplies and many, many pies.

“We could not do it without the help of the community,” she said. “Everybody has pitched in and everything has been done with so much love, everyone has really rolled with the punches of not being able to be here physically.”

Chris Hetzer, one of a few chefs who will be cooking up hundreds of meals at St. Vincent’s on Thursday, said this year has been unlike any other.

The most notable difference, he said, “is the pure volume and intensity it takes to prepare 500-plus meals and to package them before it leaves the kitchen all freshly made for that day.” Typically, the chefs make about 300 meals and serve them right in the organization's dining room. Now they have the extra challenge of packaging the meals, keeping them warm and handing them off to a delivery driver.

The second challenge this season, he said, “is that we're no longer participating directly in the festivities of the day.”

“Although we will miss celebrating the day together with everyone gathered in our dining room, we still have joy in the work and will pass it along in each meal that we prepare,” Hetzer said.

In Old Lyme, Shoreline Church made the difficult decision to cancel plans for a Thanksgiving dinner this year, a tradition it started about three years ago.

“For the past few years we’ve served people an in-house dinner, but we decided this year that it’s probably better for the safety of all that we didn’t do that,” Pastor Mike Calo said. The decision, he said, wasn’t an easy one.

“It was very difficult at first — we thought about making meals to go, but that just involved so much in terms of logistics and delivery and we weren’t in the place to be able to handle that this year,” he said.

In place of the annual meal, the church ramped up its food pantry services, giving people an opportunity to pick up groceries from 10 a.m. to noon every Saturday and making sure to offer some Thanksgiving staples the weekend before the holiday.

Calo said the church received a few calls from people who were looking for holiday meals this week. To help, the church made food pantry items available to those people and referred them to other local organizations that are offering delivery or pick-up Thursday.

Sound Community Services in New London, which assists individuals with mental illness and substance use disorders, also had to adapt this year due to the coronavirus pandemic and opted for the delivery route.

For the past 15 years, the organization has hosted dinner for its clients to ensure that everyone has a warm meal for Thanksgiving. This year, instead of its usual meal where 150 to 200 people gather in one place, the agency decided to deliver 150 meals prepared by Ivy’s Simply Homemade in Waterford directly to its clients ahead of the holiday.

The pandemic has altered the way the organization does its business, engaging clients virtually or in small group settings outside, and the holiday season has been no exception to the changes.

Gino DeMaio, Sound's chief executive officer, said staff members have risen to the occasion and adapted to pandemic safety precautions while continuing to support their clients. “It's been amazing how the staff has stepped up, but I do think the clients are really struggling with the loss of human connection,” he said.

The organization has shown “how we're adaptable and still able to serve the people,” he said, adding of his staff: “As their leader, I’m blown away by them."

t.hartz@theday.com 

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