A correction has been made to this story to reflect the final tally on the number of meals served.

WINCHESTER — First Presbyterian Church’s annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner on Thursday became a drive-by, drop-off event due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With approximately 262,000 Americans dead — including some 4,000 Virginians — and the virus spiking, the church couldn’t risk having traditional sit-down meals that typically feed about 500 people. This year, 1,250 meals were delivered or handed off to people who came to the church at 116 S. Loudoun St.

By 11:15 a.m., 15 minutes after the effort began, 23 volunteer delivery drivers waited in their vehicles in a semi-circle in the church parking lot while about a dozen people waited to pick up meals at the church entrance. In past years, some 90 people would’ve been inside the church preparing meals, but the church limited it to 30 people, who wore masks and socially distanced due to COVID-19 concerns.

The pandemic also meant the church couldn’t rely on volunteers preparing turkeys and pies. Instead, packaged rotisserie chicken meat prepared by Costco Wholesale was purchased. Some people who cooked meals for the dinner in the past became drivers this year with a total of 45 drivers delivering meals.

Among those shuttling between the church and the parking lot was Juliet Michael. Like many volunteers, she’s been participating for years. Michael, 28, has been helping out since 1997.

“This is the most chaotic it’s ever been,” she told driver John Cowgill and his wife Marilyn Cowgill as she handed them meals. “It’s alright. We’ll figure it out.”

While the sit-down meals provide companionship and generate goodwill, Michael said deliveries have always been an important aspect of the event. Besides deliveries to the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, Winchester fire and police departments and Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter — known as WATTS — many deliveries go to low-income people or elderly people who have a hard time traveling. With the pandemic crashing the economy and limiting family visits, Michael said the need is greater this year.

Among those receiving a meal was Winchester resident Sarah Myers, 76. In September, her legs were burned in a cooking accident, making it hard to move around. Myers, who has eaten at the church in the past, said receiving a meal was more convenient than having to travel to Stephens City to eat with her family. “I’m slow getting around, but I’m doing pretty good,” Myers told the Cowgills who dropped off her meal.

The Cowgills, who were delivering for the first time this year after preparing meals in past years, were among several drivers who attend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Frederick County.

“It’s just so awesome for people to get together from so many different ecumenical groups,” said driver and Latter-Day Saints parishioner Rachel Weaver. “First Presbyterian really did a great job of adapting to COVID with the delivery system.”

The dinner began in the mid-1980s with about 150 meals served annually, according to Bob Cleaver, dinner co-director. Deliveries began in the mid-2000s. Cleaver attributed the increases in meals delivered and served to growing poverty and greater awareness of the dinner. Besides thanking volunteers, Cleaver said he was grateful to Costco, Partlow Insurance, Sprint Shentel and USA Products and Seafood, the dinner’s corporate sponsors.

“It’s been a challenge, but people need to be fed and that’s our goal,” he said. “Our mantra has always been: ordinary people, extraordinary purpose. That’s what we’re about here.”

— Contact Evan Goodenow at egoodenow@winchesterstar.com

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