WATERTOWN — Each year on Thanksgiving, the Salvation Army serves meals for community members in need of them. Even amid a global pandemic, this year was no exception, as the local chapter set a record for meals served — more than 800.

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Last year, the Salvation Army gave out a little more than 600 meals, according to Maj. Karen D. Smullen of the Salvation Army. But this year, before any deliveries or pick-ups had even taken place, it was estimated that 800 or more meals would be distributed Thursday.

When all was said and done, 453 meals were delivered and the rest picked up for a grand total of 872 dinners, making for the highest number of meals the Salvation Army has ever given for Thanksgiving in the area.

Even though the annual Thanksgiving Day dinner distribution rallied on this year, everything looks a bit different due to the pandemic.

Instead of tables set up for guests to come and eat inside the State Street location, tables were piled high with boxes and various food items set for delivery to those who couldn’t make it out to pick up meals, as well as those who would normally come inside to eat.

Salvation Army serves a record 872 meals

From left: Gavin Stone, a senior at South Jefferson High school; his brother Carter Stone, a freshman; and Mark Taylor, principal at Case Middle School in Watertown; assemble turkey dinners to be delivered on Thanksgiving Day at the Salvation Army Worship and Service Center on State Street in Watertown. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

Due to COVID-19 safety measures, those receiving meals this year lined up behind the building and waited to receive their food to take home. Deliveries for the day began shortly after 10 a.m., and pick-ups began at about 11 a.m. and continued until 3 p.m.

A line of individuals formed before 11 a.m. outside in the light rain, masked and patiently waiting to pick up their meals.

Maj. Smullen has been with the Salvation Army for more than 40 years, and with the local chapter of the organization for about four years. This year, with a rise in local need, she’s noticed a rise in generosity during the pandemic, and it’s continued into the holiday season, she said.

The food being given away at no cost to recipients was largely donated from the community, like 24 turkeys from Renzi Foodservice, pies and breads from places like Walmart, Sam’s Club and Panera, additional turkeys from individuals, as well as other items.

The real cost for the Salvation Army this year, with so much provided food, was containers for all of it, plastic bags and other items totaling a couple hundred dollars.

“That says something about our community,” Maj. Smullen said. “They wanted to make sure that this was being done.”

During a normal year, the Salvation Army would see about one hundred or so volunteers in and out of the building for the duration of the meal giveaways and food prep the day before. This year, Maj. Smullen said there were no more than 20 on Thanksgiving Day, and a total of maybe 50 over the two days.

Among those volunteering was Rev. Laura E. Calos, pastor at Asbury United Methodist Church, who moved to the area in July and said she wanted to volunteer since she couldn’t be with her family this year.

“I didn’t want to get into a funk about that, so the best way to not feel sorry for yourself is to do something for somebody else,” she said. “I want to encourage people to volunteer during this holiday season.”

Salvation Army serves a record 872 meals

Boxes filled with donated groceries wait to be passed out to clients along with their full turkey dinners on Thanksgiving Day at the Salvation Army center in Watertown. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

Another volunteer, Yvette M. Rolle, originally from Miami, has been living in Watertown for the past 15 years and has been volunteering with the Salvation Army for the same length of time.

“It’s hurtful to know that people can’t come together in the kind of way we want them to, but I just really thank God that I’m here helping out,” she said. “To be a part of this, giving back to the community is a blessing.”

Abby G. Stone has been volunteering for the past few years with her husband, John P., and their sons Gavin T., 17, and Carter D., 14.

“We’re always looking for volunteer stuff to do,” she said. “We used to come on Wednesdays and peel potatoes — that used to be our thing that we would come the day before and do all the prep. It’s very cool, it’s a great service. The preparation that goes into making this happen amazes me.”

Carter, the youngest Stone, said he likes coming to help the community, especially right now in this time of need. He and his family helped out wherever they were needed Thursday, jumping from task to task with enthusiasm.

In a back room slicing pies into hundreds of pieces were Mike D. Hinman, a physician assistant with Family Practice Associates, and Bill R. Baker, a semi-retired office manager for a storage facility. Mr. Hinman is in his fourth year of volunteering and began after one of his patients told him about the opportunity. For Mr. Baker, it was his daughter, Kim, who got him started five years ago with deliveries.

Lisa A. Safford, a teaching assistant at South Jefferson, has been volunteering for 15 or 16 years on Thanksgiving, and also volunteers with other Salvation Army programs and events. She was also the one to get Mr. Hinman involved with volunteering with the organization.

“I think it’s really important, and it’s not just the food, it’s them knowing that there’s people out in the community that are there to help them,” she said.

The meals given out Thursday included turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing and a vegetable. Meal recipients were also given pie, cranberry sauce and bread, as well as some fruits, additional sweets and whatever else was given to the Salvation Army to feed the public, such as pouches of apple juice, animal crackers and even bags of candy corn.

Salvation Army serves a record 872 meals

Tina Barajas, Watertown, stirs a pot of gravy as she mans the kitchen on Thanksgiving Day with brother and sister volunteers, Fred and Melody Eamer, together cranking out pounds of mashed potatoes, turkey, squash and stuffing at the Salvation Army Worship and Service Center on State Street in Watertown.  Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

For those picking up meals, a table was set up outside where they could come up and remain socially distant while receiving their food.

For those volunteering, temperatures were taken as they entered the building and each were asked to fill out a virus screening questionnaire. All volunteers and recipients wore masks and those dealing with food were provided with gloves.

“The thing that’s really actually very sad for us is that this room would normally be a dining room,” Maj. Smullen said. “People would come in and sit down and we have a lot of people that are on their own — they’ve got no family, and they would come in here and we were their family. We’re still their family, but we can’t sit and visit.

“That’s what Thanksgiving is about. It’s not just the food, it’s the getting together,” she added.

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