Every Thanksgiving since 2005, people have gathered for a free meal made by volunteers with Effingham County FISH. Last year, more than 250 meals were enjoyed at the St. Anthony Church Parish Center and another 420 were delivered to people's homes.
Like many things in 2020, this year's Thanksgiving meal will be different.
"It's gonna be hard," said Susan Elke, the chief organizer of the meal and president of Effingham County FISH. "The whole lockdown situation has been hard on everybody."
Elke has spent the past several weeks prepping and planning FISH's Thanksgiving Day Meal. She says there isn't a safe way to pack as many people as she expects into one place.
That won't stop her from serving the people of Effingham. She knows that people depend on the holiday meals that FISH provides. She's going to have the meal, but without the gathering.
"There will be no congregate meal," she said.
While she understands that it's necessary, Elke isn't thrilled about the break from tradition.
"You don't have the camaraderie of sitting down together," she said.
Facing this dilemma, FISH has a number of hurdles to overcome. Where to prep the meals? How can volunteers help package the meals safely? How to deliver hundreds of meals in a day?
Not everyone would be up to the task of tackling these hurdles, but Elke is. She has decades of experience volunteering with FISH that are driving her ability to handle the challenges of 2020.
FISH, a non-denominational Christian organization, regularly partners with churches for their larger events. Cornerstone Christian Church has agreed to let FISH use its facilities to prepare the meals.
Luckily, the space is one of the places in town big enough to hold the volunteers that Elke expects.
"On a normal Thanksgiving, I would have 100 to 150 volunteers," Elke said.
She excepts that to be lower this year, around 100.
"All the people volunteering will have to wear gloves and masks," she noted.
Elke is also breaking up the meal prep into three volunteer shifts, overseen by a core group of volunteers.
The first part of the day will be dedicated to packaging and delivering meals to the outlying communities in Effingham County – places like Altamont, Dieterich and Shumway. The second part will be for packaging and delivering to people in the city of Effingham. The last part of the day will be for curbside pickup. This way, she can reduce volunteer's possible exposure to COVID-19.
To further reduce exposure, Elke is cutting out one of her longtime volunteer requirements: Fellowship. Normally, she asks volunteers to spend 10 or 15 minutes with the people they deliver meals to.
"They should have a little time to spend with people," Elke said. Because she's worried about COVID-19, she won't be telling people to do that this year.
"It's not gonna be as fun this year," Elke said, referring to the cutbacks she's had to make. Still, she's determined to make sure that Thanksgiving is a day where everyone can have a good meal.
"To me, it's a special day," Elke said.
Russ Howard is on the Board of Directors for FISH and plans on driving some of the Thanksgiving meals to their destination.
"I'm gonna miss the camaraderie," Howard said.
"Everybody's kinda walking on eggshells," he said, referring to how careful event planners have to be due to the pandemic. "There's a fine, fine line, especially with older people."
FISH will also hold a Christmas Day Meal, offering free food to Effingham County residents for the holiday. Elke says this meal will function similarly to this year's Thanksgiving meal – volunteers working in shifts with no congregate meal.
Meals aren't the only thing that FISH has had to rework this holiday season.
FISH hosts a "Christmas Store" in collaboration with Effingham Catholic Charities. The store is a way to support families during the holiday season, according to Molly Bushue, a volunteer for FISH and Catholic Charities who acts as the primary organizer for the Christmas Store.
"Especially in today's world, there are a lot of families that need a little extra help," Bushue said.
The Christmas Store is an application-based program in which people who meet certain financial criteria are invited to the Christmas store on Dec. 11 or 12. There they can take home coats, hats, gloves, shoe vouchers, toys, stocking stuffers, socks, underwear, pajamas, a voucher for a Catholic Charities food box, a bag of consumer product goods, and board game or puzzle, all free of cost because of community and business donations.
"We park a semi and the community literally fills the semi," Bushue said.
FISH stores some of these donations throughout the year in a loft at its service center, which is currently filled. At points, there are only inches of room between the roof and the stacks of donated goods.
"If it wasn't for the work of these organizations, a lot of families wouldn't be able to have Christmas," Bushue said.
In the age of COVID-19, Bushue has had to modify the program to minimize exposure to the virus. This year, patrons will fill out a form based on their family's interests and be given a package assembled by volunteers. In a typical year, people "shop" and browse items that they select themselves.
"Honestly, it is so much work ahead of time," Bushue said.
The work is worth it for her. The reason she keeps doing it is "to see the smiles and the appreciation from the families that need those items."
While the pandemic has changed so many things, Howard said the driving force of the organization remains intact: "People are so generous."
"We're reasonably optimistic. I think we're all on target," Howard said.
Applications to shop at the Christmas Store are available until Nov. 25. To sign up to receive a meal for the Thanksgiving Day Dinner, call Effingham Senior Services at 217-347-5569.