Holiday mission adjusts: Thanksgiving for Thousands takes precautions amid COVID

Indian River High School FFA members Mya Parks, Emily Tharby and Julia Smith work the line at the 2017 Mountaire’s Thanksgiving for Thousands’ packing day. This year’s packing event will be held outdoors over two days, Nov. 19-20, to accommodate COVID-19 health precautions. Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe

SELBYVILLE — The goodwill mission remains the same.

Logistically, it is vastly different.

Amid COVID-19, Mountaire Farms’ Thanksgiving for Thousands tradition will continue this year, with packing day precautions and volunteer limits during the ongoing pandemic.

The 26th edition of Thanksgiving for Thousands, geared to provide 10,000 holiday meals to needy families across Delmarva, will have a different look due to measures implemented to honor social distancing protocol and keep volunteers and the community safe.

To accommodate volunteers and proper social distancing, packing will be held outdoors on two days, Nov. 19 and 20, with multiple shifts at Mountaire’s Selbyville warehouse facility at 55 Hosier St.

Food box distribution day for the 10,000 boxes through 175 community partners is Monday, Nov. 23 at Crossroad Community Church in Georgetown.

This year’s Thanksgiving for Thousands will be noticeably different in another way.

Roger Marino, the well-known face and voice for Thanksgiving for Thousands since its inception as well as Mountaire’s other community giveback initiatives, retired this past summer after a 30-year career with the poultry company.

“First and foremost, Roger built this thing,” said Zach Evans, who succeeded Mr. Marino as Mountaire’s community relations manager. “The reason the event had been so successful is because Roger did a good job engaging other community organizations who wanted to give back to their neighbors throughout Delmarva.”

This year, instead of packing from inside the warehouse, volunteers will work beneath a rented 4,000-square-foot open air tent with detachable sidewalls to create an open air environment.

Roger Marino, left, introduces a speaker at Mountaire Farms’ 2017 Thanksgiving for Thousands packing day. Mr. Marino, who retired this past summer, was influential in the success of the annual event over its first 25 years.

There will be volunteer shifts of two 4-hour windows each packing day, accommodating up to 30 volunteers inside the tent per shift.

“We looked at the total amount of square footage with a 6-foot bubble. We were OK with 40 to 50 (people) but we decided to err on the side of caution,” said Mr. Evans.

Volunteers this year must be 16 years of age or older.

Anyone wishing to volunteer is urged to sign up as efforts will be made to accommodate all who show up, through shift rotations and other scheduling tweaks. Group volunteer efforts are encouraged.

“We always have no-shows. I’m not going to turn anyone away. We’re going to let everybody sign up,” said Mr. Evans. “My big thing working with volunteers is I never want to discourage someone from participating.”

Volunteers are asked to pre-register at: https://www.signupgenius.com/go/tft2020.

“We knew we would really have to cut down significantly on the number of volunteers, all on account of the COVID protocols,” said Mr. Evans.

“We also knew two things; that the need now in 2020 is probably greater than it has ever been, after eight months of this pandemic, and that our organizations who have always helped us are even more desperate for opportunities to help, because again they are restricted in the things that they can usually do,” Mr. Evans said.

In keeping with tradition, each family meal box will include corn, green beans, yams, cranberry sauce, stuffing and brownie mix, and a Mountaire roaster chicken.

With a can in hand, Mountaire Farms’ employee Tyrone Bullock goes over packing instructions to volunteers manning the packing lines at a previous Thanksgiving for Thousands event.

Due to the multi-day gap between packing and distribution, family box items will be pre-packed Nov. 19-20 except for the roasters, which will be added Nov. 23 just prior to distribution.

“We’re going to pre-pack all of the boxes and load those on tractor trailers. We’re going to have all the roasters on separate tractor trailers and when we take them to the distribution site we’re going to just have a one-step process where each box gets set onto a table, a roaster is packed and it gets slid down and loaded into the vehicle,” said Mr. Evans.

In past non-COVID years, the packing day bonanza featured hundreds and hundreds of volunteers in a day-long work bee.

Because shifts this year will be outdoors, those attending are reminded to dress accordingly. In maintaining COVID safety protocol, volunteers are reminded to bring and wear a facial mask and gloves.

Mr. Marino experienced major health challenges last fall but has recovered, Mr. Evans said.

“I volunteered for Thanksgiving for Thousands probably the last five years. I always got to experience it as a volunteer. Lucky enough, I was able to learn from Roger last year. I got to work with him a little bit,” said Mr. Evans, adding an invitation has been extended for Mr. Marino to attend this year’s event as an honored guest. “I’m just doing my best to try to fill those big shoes.”