The COVID-19 pandemic forced people across the nation to downsize Thanksgiving this year. But that wasn't an option for the organizers of community Thanksgiving meals at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center and the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior.

Too many people were depending on them, said Monica Hendrickson, a coordinator for the College of St. Scholastica's DECC event. She explained that if not for the continued efforts of volunteers, many people in need and solitary shut-ins would have had no traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

"Cooking a turkey for one isn't really an option," Hendrickson noted.

"The pandemic made things a little more interesting this year," said Dustin Heckman, executive director of the Bong Center. "We had to adjust a little bit, because this is one event we really wanted to still do. So, we went the curbside delivery route, like many of our restaurant friends are having to do, as well."

UPS employee Denelle Johnson, of Superior, works with volunteers Kyle Risdall and Keegan Flaherty, both of Duluth, and with the 148th Fighter Wing to check that they have enough meals for CHUM, the Damiano Center, Union Gospel Mission, Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans and the Gary New Duluth Rec Center during the annual Twin Ports Thanksgiving Buffet. UPS donated the use of the truck to deliver meals. (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)
UPS employee Denelle Johnson, of Superior, works with volunteers Kyle Risdall and Keegan Flaherty, both of Duluth, and with the 148th Fighter Wing to check that they have enough meals for CHUM, the Damiano Center, Union Gospel Mission, Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans and the Gary New Duluth Rec Center during the annual Twin Ports Thanksgiving Buffet. UPS donated the use of the truck to deliver meals. (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)

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Most of the 150 meals served up at the Bong were delivered to vets in waiting vehicles Thursday morning and afternoon, but five volunteer drivers set out to provide to-the-door delivery for those who couldn't drive.

Meanwhile, the DECC began efforts to deliver dinners at 8 a.m., when UPS drivers loaded about 1,000 meals onto their trucks. Before the end of the day, Hendrickson said volunteers expected to deliver about 2,300 Thanksgiving meals as well as 1,000 extra bag lunches.

Reflecting on the changes the pandemic has required, Hendrickson said: "In some ways it's been easier and in some ways it's much harder."

She explained that the DECC's first wave of Thanksgiving meals was delivered in the form of about 600 cook-at-home family meal kits last week.

"We've been able to spread the work out over a week and a half," she said.

That has allowed the DECC to get by with fewer volunteers working simultaneously and also has enabled people to space out, reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Hendrickson said a number of volunteers also have been sidelined by the pandemic — some because of infection and others in quarantine as a precaution because of presumed exposure. She noted that fortunately the DECC has been able to draw on a deep bench of volunteers.

The DECC has leaned heavily on volunteers this year, making use of about 200 drivers over the past couple of weeks, Hendrickson said.

Najeeb Jindeel (from left) of Duluth, Maz Jindeel of Minneapolis and Leila Jindeel of Duluth prepare bag lunches for distributions during the annual Twin Ports Thanksgiving Buffet hosted by the College of St. Scholastica. The Jindeel family has volunteered at the event for the past 10 years.  (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)
Najeeb Jindeel (from left) of Duluth, Maz Jindeel of Minneapolis and Leila Jindeel of Duluth prepare bag lunches for distributions during the annual Twin Ports Thanksgiving Buffet hosted by the College of St. Scholastica. The Jindeel family has volunteered at the event for the past 10 years. (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)

Without the benefit of access to a large commercial kitchen, the Bong Center relies on home cooks. This year, they provided 10 turkeys, five hams and all the traditional fixings.

"It takes a small army to make it all happen," Heckman said.

Briana Fiandt, the Bong Center's curator, said that with the event now in its third year and many of the seasoned cooks from previous years returning, "We're sort of getting into a routine."

The event admittedly takes a lot of coordination though. Fiandt described the process.

"We put together a list of exactly what food we're going to serve and how much of it, and then we figure how many people we need to cook it and then we start dividing it up amongst people who volunteer," she said. "We're so lucky, because we get strangers calling us who heard about it and they say, 'I want to cook something.' So, that's really nice."

Come Thursday morning, the Bong's network of home cooks rush their still-hot dishes to the center, where they huddle to assemble the meals.

Meg Nelson, 17, of Duluth loads a box of Thanksgiving meals Thursday onto a UPS truck during the annual Twin Ports Thanksgiving Buffet hosted by the College of St. Scholastica. According to event organizer Monica Hendrickson, this year the event had enough food to create 1,000 bag lunches, 2,300 hot meals and donated enough food for 500 meals to the food bank. (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)
Meg Nelson, 17, of Duluth loads a box of Thanksgiving meals Thursday onto a UPS truck during the annual Twin Ports Thanksgiving Buffet hosted by the College of St. Scholastica. According to event organizer Monica Hendrickson, this year the event had enough food to create 1,000 bag lunches, 2,300 hot meals and donated enough food for 500 meals to the food bank. (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)

"Just because of COVID this year, we've tried to really limit how many people we actually have in the building," Fiandt said, explaining that a crew of eight to 10 volunteers assembled at the center for Thanksgiving this year.

Hendrickson said the DECC operated its kitchen with a skeleton crew of about 12 this year to maintain proper social distancing.

The College of St. Scholastica serves as the fiscal agent for the DECC event, which Hendrickson said usually costs $40,000-$50,000. Although final figures are still in the works, she expects this year's event will exceed that mark due to the greater-than-usual demand.

Hendrickson pointed out that the cost of the community Thanksgiving event would be far greater if not for the generosity of sponsors, many of whom provide valuable in-kind donations. She said the event had more than enough food at the end, allowing it to donate enough extra supplies to provide Second Harvest with 500 meals.

Jordan Wieck (left), 8, of Duluth and his mother Laura Wieck of Duluth prepare bag lunches during the annual Twin Ports Thanksgiving Buffet hosted by the College of St. Scholastica. (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)
Jordan Wieck (left), 8, of Duluth and his mother Laura Wieck of Duluth prepare bag lunches during the annual Twin Ports Thanksgiving Buffet hosted by the College of St. Scholastica. (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)

The revamped nature of this year's event has made planning a bit of a challenge, said Hendrickson, noting that they ran short of potatoes and had to reorder on three separate occasions because of inadequate projections, causing some to joke about organizers' fuzzy "potato math."

While Hendrickson said she feels good about getting Thanksgiving dinner to so many people this year, the inability to gather together hurts.

"That's the hardest part for us ... not seeing the people that we see every year," she said. "We have a core group of diners that we expect to see and hug. We expect to see pictures of their grandkids or their friends and hear how their year has been going.

A bag lunch containing a turkey sandwich created during the annual Twin Ports Thanksgiving Buffet hosted by the College of St. Scholastica (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)
A bag lunch containing a turkey sandwich created during the annual Twin Ports Thanksgiving Buffet hosted by the College of St. Scholastica (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)

"But then on the flip-side, we also have those people who are homebound and can't get out. Our delivery drivers would typically spend some time chatting with them and going into their home and helping them get a meal onto the table. This year, that can't happen," Hendrickson said, noting the switch to contactless delivery.

Fiandt misses that part of Thanksgiving at the Bong as well, saying that the companionship the event provides is really more important than the food in her eyes.

"One of the best things about the whole dinner is that it gives the vets a place to come and socialize and be with other veterans and be with other people. So, it's really sad that we can't do that this year. But hopefully next year," she said.