Those who open their doors to the entire community for Thanksgiving dinner are feeling the way many folks do this year.

“We are a little bit sad,” said Christian Aid Center spokeswoman, Corina Car.

“Last week we had to modify the plans we had made, some of the things we were excited about.”

The faith-based organization houses and feeds people all year, but holidays always bring extra diners and special food to meals.

And Thanksgiving itself is a special day for the organization, Car said.

“It is the perfect opportunity to invite everyone to be part of our family and come and eat together for Thanksgiving day dinner.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, has changed the nature of that meal this year. Chistian Aid Center, like other indoor dining spots, can’t seat people as usual at the long dining tables outfitted with holiday decor.

Guests won’t go down the serving line to choose their from-scratch dishes from the special menu and thank the volunteers, then sit together like family.

Children’s eyes won’t light up at the sight of a table filled with desserts, and no one will linger over a cup of coffee.

Those moments, Car said, have symbolized love and acceptance at a time of year that can be toughest to be homeless or otherwise in need.

Just a week ago staff considered how to create an outdoor dining experience for the holiday, including closing off the block and spreading out tables of all sizes.

“But the situation has gotten so much worse in the last few days, she said Tuesday, referring to rising COVID-19 case counts in the Walla Walla area.

“We have been very fortunate to not have any outbreaks at our shelters. And we want to keep it that way.

“So we had to think, ‘How can we still make (Thanksgiving) special?”

For much of the pandemic, Christian Aid Center has assumed the central role in Walla Walla of dispensing lunches to those who need food, taking on the role of various church soup kitchens around town.

Along with the breakfast and dinners the center has always served, staff and volunteers hand out boxed meals from the back of the dining hall three times daily.

To consider doing the same routine for a holiday was devastating, Car said.

The fixes for Thanksgiving 2020 are small but, hopefully, significant.

Yes, Thanksgiving dinner will have to be to-go, but the homemade food will go into holiday-themed containers.

Desserts will, as always, be plentiful and merit their own container per person.

Outdoor heaters will keep waiting diners warm while they sip hot apple cider.

The plan is to have live music to be enjoyed by those standing in line, Car said.

People currently living at the center will have dinner together.

“We follow protocols for safety,” Car said. “The guests who stay here are considered family … It’s a humongous family of 60 people.”

She said as far as she knows, Christian Aid Center’s Thanksgiving will be the only free and open dinner on the holiday.

“We are inviting, as always, all the other shelters, the Sleep Center, the YWCA,” she said. “We are welcoming anyone in this community to come and get their special Thanksgiving from here.”

Safety over traditionFor Deanna Smith, fall has been much quieter than she would like.

Sad, even.

This should have been Smith’s 18th year organizing the traditional, all-invited Thanksgiving meal at DeSales Catholic High School.

Every year, for longer than even Smith knows, volunteers have cooked, baked and carved to produce a meal that will feed about 850 people the Tuesday before the holiday.

The action starts weeks ahead of that day, however. As captain of this ship, Smith usually begins October with calls to line up volunteers and food donations, she said.

But this year isn’t like any other year, and Smith tried to find a path around all the obstacles the pandemic brings.

“I talked to all the stakeholders and everyone was with me, whatever I decided.”

Smith initially considered a take-out model to get the food to people. But the more she thought about things, the uneasier she became, even before Gov. Jay Inslee’s latest restrictions that include temporarily shutting down indoor dining to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

DeSales is the only commercial kitchen — with its cooler, big stand mixer and steam pots — to which Smith has access. Even operating with a skeleton crew, that isn’t room to do the prep work and still physically distance, she said.

To say nothing of hundreds of those eating, Smith noted.

“There was no way I could do crowd control, there’s no way to do it without putting people in harm’s way. I was really worried about contaminating DeSales and that made the final decision for me.”

She went down her helper list, passing along the bad news one phone call at a time.

“I’m not sure how to feel,” she said. “I felt like the grim reaper.”

Smith, though, has not been at this for nearly two decades without knowing how to rally the troops.

“It ended on a good note, I told everyone we’d be at it next year.”

Normally the Walla Walla Salvation Army provides the turkeys for the DeSales dinner, and also hosts a smaller community dinner of its own on the holiday weekend, said Monica Smith, social work coordinator for the organization.

This year 18 of the birds — which didn’t fill the entire need — are headed to Blue Mountain Heart to Heart, she said.

Heart to Heart Executive Director Everett Maroon said his organization makes up Thanksgiving baskets with the ingredients to prepare the whole holiday dinner and gives them to clients living with HIV or AIDS.

Christmas is coming

Smith said the Salvation Army has a bigger focus on helping people at Christmas, including giving out toys and food.

The quest for those donations is already on, she said.

“We are still trying to get enough turkeys. We need potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, rolls and pies, green beans … anything that goes with holiday meals. And new toys.”

The Salvation Army uses a Walmart registry and Angel Tree gift tags to gather gifts for area children. Even now it looks like the need will be tremendous, Smith said.

“People are losing their jobs again. I’m already getting a lot of calls.”

Coronavirus Coverage

Because of the health and safety concerns, the Union-Bulletin is allowing unlimited access to our stories and resources about the novel coronavirus. However, if you’re able to subscribe, please support our journalism. Click here to start your digital or print subscription

.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.