Nov. 10, 2020 — The Kiwanis Community Thanksgiving Dinner, organized by the Kiwanis Club of Florence for more than 30 years, is again taking place on Thanksgiving Day, this time with a slightly different routine.
“It’s a little different this year because we are providing to-go meals,” said Kiwanian Shannon Sheets, one of three organizers of the event. “To accommodate the health and safety of participants, along with following state and county guidelines, we will be preparing to-go meals which will be distributed via a drive-through.”
This is necessitated by the global COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions to indoor gatherings.
The free event will continue to take place at Florence Elks Lodge #1858, 1686 12th St., which has a commercial kitchen. In a normal year, its dining room seats 270 people at a time.
“There’s already a route in place,” Sheets said.
On Thursday, Nov. 26, Thanksgiving meals will be distributed from 11:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., or until meals run out, whichever is first.
Distribution will be through two lines. People will drive eastbound on 12th Street before signs will direct them into the Elks Lodge parking lot. When vehicles reach the kitchen, volunteers will come out to bring meals directly to the cars.
“The nice part about that is people will get their meal from the backside of the kitchen, so there will be less carrying and handling of the to-go meals,” Sheets said.
Once people have their meals, they will be able to exit onto Highway 101.
There are also plans in place for those who do not arrive in vehicle, although walk-up attendees will need to stay in the same lines as vehicles.
The Community Thanksgiving Committee consists of Sheets, her mother Clara Kuhn and fellow Kiwanian and Florence Elk Gary Vawter. They got an early start on strategizing for this year’s meal, which in the past has served upwards of 600 people.
This year, Kiwanis is preparing 500 meals.
According to Sheets, this number was reached after looking at past in-person events, where diners ate family-style meals, some bringing whole families and out-of-town guests.
“There won’t be the elderly family trying to entertain company in the same manner, or even neighbors trying to entertain neighbors the same way this year,” she said.
Each vehicle will be able to pick up meals for their households, but are capped at six meals.
The organizers also have plans for those who will be picking up meals for their neighbors or people who are unable to drive up.
“We’ve had that every single year,” Sheets said.
To-go meals have been an option at the dinner for several years, even though the emphasis has been on the family-style dinner at the Elks Lodge. Last year, to-go meals were available even while the rest of the event was dine-in.
“That was due to just seeing that the need was a little more demanding than it had been in years past, and how we could accommodate those people instead of having them wait,” Sheets said. “It definitely proved to be a huge benefit and very well received — in fact, so much so that the Elks went ahead and copied that when their Christmas dinner came around.”
The to-go dinners will contain a full Thanksgiving dinner. Each box will have turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, yams and a roll, as well as lidded containers for gravy and cranberry sauce. A separate container will have a slice of pumpkin pie.
“There’ll be a little bit more flexibility on the patrons’ part because they’ll be able to take their meals and can heat them up at home at their convenience,” Sheets said.
Kiwanis also has plans for any remaining meals after the community has been served.
“We already have leftover arrangements in place so that they will be going to stay within the community where the food distribution is needed,” Sheets added.
In addition, partnerships are in place to support the event.
Although Kiwanis organizes and pays for the event fully, “we call it the Kiwanis Community Thanksgiving Dinner,” Sheets emphasized.
This is because Kiwanis fully organizes and pays for the events, but community partners make the event possible. That includes the Florence Elks Lodge donating the use of its facilities and dozens of community volunteers who come forward to work at the event.
“We rely on community volunteers or the event would not be possible,” Sheets stated. “It is served to our community, and that is the Siuslaw region, meaning Florence and Mapleton. … There’s a there is a family that I have seen come every year because I’ve watched their kids grow. … It puts a little warmth in my heart to see them each year.”
Community is also a big part of the support of the event. The event continues to be free, but people sometimes pay their meals forward by donating money or food to the event.
“One thing that we have done in the past and do plan to continue this year is accept donations for Mapleton and Florence food shares,” Sheets said. “We’ve already been in contact with each of them to make sure of their rules so that we can fit with their COVID changes.”
Any food brought to the event will be donated to the food share organizations, but monetary donations will return to the club to offset this year’s food costs.
Like other groups planning large-scale events in 2020, the cost of many products is higher due to increased demand, changed production methods and even shipping delays.
Sheets estimates that there will be a 40 percent increase for some of the food items. Adding in the cost of switching entirely to take-away boxes, this year’s numbers will look very different from the budget of a normal year.
“While we knew we would be met with those extra costs, we knew we would be saving in costs in other areas,” she said. “We figured those will kind of help offset one another, because we don’t have beverages, salt and pepper and creamers and all of those things to provide.”
Ultimately, it has been an education as the committee has tracked local COVID regulations, budgeted for the meal and organized volunteer schedules.
“It’s worth it in the end,” Sheets said. “It’s easier to do the normal Thanksgiving that we’re used to because we already have so many kinks worked out. It’s like starting over for this year, because of all the changes. It’s making us have to think and do earlier.
“I’m thankful that we have the teamwork, because that definitely makes the difference.”
It’s a team that has been refined over the years. People have made it part of their holiday traditions, and dozens regularly show up. One year had as many as 100 volunteers, but Kiwanis has whittled that down to about 60 volunteers.
“It’s amazing how when you start to work out the kinks, how many fewer people you need — and we won’t need anything like that this year,” Sheets said. “We’ve already reached out to our past volunteers and have a large portion of them that have already selected their schedules.”
The work has been separated into prep periods on Wednesday, Nov. 25, for volunteers to fill up 500 containers of gravy, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. On Nov. 26, four volunteer groups will have separate tasks: cooking and dishing up the to-go meals; directing traffic in the parking lot; distributing meals to the two drive-up lines; and cleaning up the kitchen and facilities.
“We’re really pleased that when we reached out to our previous volunteers, people have stepped up and shown that they want to be a part of it and don’t want to miss helping out because they’ve done it year after year,” Sheets said. “These are people that have volunteered every year and we spend our Thanksgiving with.”
She talked about people’s Thanksgiving traditions, which often include large family meals and lots of little things that make the holiday so special.
“That's what some families do, and it’s one of those traditions that they look forward to and have great memories of for years to come. We have kind of a family of volunteers that have that same feeling,” Sheets said. “It’s exciting that we have so many people who are available and looking forward to this year as much as we are.”
While most of the volunteer positions have been filled, there might be additional room for people to sign up. For more information, contact Sheets at 541-999-6867 or [email protected]
All volunteers will undergo a health screening and have their temperatures taken before they can participate in any of the work. Distancing of six feet will also be maintained.
“We look forward to the familiar faces year after year and the fun memories that we’ve made over the years,” Sheets said. “We’re excited to be able to keep that going and that the Community Thanksgiving Dinner doesn’t have to come to an end just because a pandemic has hit and changed so much of the world. We’re excited to be able to accommodate this and go forward together.”
For more information about Kiwanis, visit FlorenceKiwanis.org. For those who wish to donate, mail items to Kiwanis Club of Florence, Oregon, PO Box 1667, Florence, OR 97439.