Like most things, a Whidbey tradition of giving will be organized a little differently this year because of COVID-19.
Since 1999, the volunteers of Mobile Turkey Unit have been preparing and delivering meals to community members in need of a Thanksgiving Day meal, from Clinton to Coupeville.
Now organizers of the mass volunteering effort are met with a different kind of challenge in Mobile Turkey Unit’s 22nd year.
The nonprofit organization is gearing up to make 700 meals — more than ever before — with fewer volunteers than normal.
There will be many different safety protocols in place this year for the volunteers prepping the food and delivering it, but organizers want to assure recipients that the meals will look no different than any other year.
Gwendine Norton, meal intake coordinator and co-president of the nonprofit’s executive board, said she anticipates an increase in people seeking a meal on Thanksgiving Day.
The program aims to provide nourishment for the elderly, the unemployed, those with low income, those with disabilities, the home bound and people working on Thanksgiving Day, including public servants.
“There are no qualifying answers to order a meal from us,” Norton said. “Asking is humbling. If you ask, you get a meal. It’s that easy.”
As early as June, Mobile Turkey Unit’s executive board met to begin planning how to move forward with the food program this year.
Non-perishables, such as canned goods, were purchased as early as August to avoid issues with the food supply chain later.
“I’m really proud of this board for committing and trying to move forward with it, because it would have been easier to just say, ‘Let’s skip a year,’” Norton said. “We’re going to figure this out.”
St. Hubert’s Catholic Church and the Langley United Methodist Church have opened their commercial kitchens for Mobile Turkey Unit volunteers. All food will be prepared there.
Volunteers are still needed for slots to peel potatoes, slice turkeys and deliver meals. Because of the county’s 10-person gathering limit, there are several shifts volunteers can choose from.
Other precautions and public health guidance will also be followed, such as wearing masks, keeping socially distanced and taking temperatures.
“We always had meat thermometers, but we never had infrared thermometers before,” Norton said with a laugh.
The nonprofit’s board members will be the only ones packing the meals this year.
Volunteer drivers will be implementing contactless delivery of the meals on Thanksgiving Day.
So far, 350 meals have been ordered and 97 volunteers have signed up.
Paul Morris, the volunteer coordinator and a board member, said 40 percent of volunteers this year are newcomers.
“It seems to attract some new people every year because I think the word gets around,” Morris said.
For many returning volunteers, it’s an indescribable experience.
“What a better way to be grateful for what you have than to go and spend time doing that?” said Karin Pinney, a Freeland resident.
She and her husband sorted through the bags last year to make sure everyone’s meals were complete.
Julie Enderle-O’Neill and Bob O’Neill, also of Freeland, expressed an appreciation that Mobile Turkey Unit is so organized.
The two cooks usually work separately from the other volunteers, but have been self-quarantining in preparation.
“This year, it’s going to be a little bit different,” Enderle-O’Neill said. “I’m confident that we can definitely get ’er done.”
She added, “I’m knocking on wood that we’re healthy.”
Organizers said they will miss the youth volunteering this year, because of the 10-person limit on gatherings in the kitchens.
Children are, however, allowed to ride along with delivery drivers.
As usual, those without permanent addresses can grab a meal at the Chevron Short Stop in Freeland or the Mobil Gas Station in Bayview.
“We’re committed to making sure everyone has something to eat, but safely this year,” Norton said.
To order a meal or to volunteer, go to mobileturkeyunit.com for more details.
The deadline to place a meal is 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 19.