LIMA — The community Thanksgiving dinner held annually for more than three decades in downtown Lima had been officially open for less than a half hour Thursday morning and cars were already lined up around the block, waiting their turn in a drive-thru lane to pick up a free holiday dinner.
“Some of them have been waiting in that line since before 10 a.m.,” said a volunteer helping direct traffic on South Main Street.
Inside Veterans Memorial Civic Center, the communal feeling and spirit of togetherness so familiar at past Thanksgiving feasts was somewhat less prevalent this year — pushed aside by a worldwide pandemic that made a mass gathering virtually impossible — but the need within the community for a helping hand was perhaps more evident that ever.
As a steady stream of community members filed out of the center with their meals in hand, volunteers inside scrambled to fill take-out bags for those waiting to take their place.
This is the third year the annual event was hosted by the Lima Community Church. Jonathan Burkey, a church member and co-director of this year’s dinner, couldn’t help but chuckle at the hand the church and its volunteers were dealt.
“Our first year of sponsoring the event in 2018 was a little chaotic, but last year we were a little more familiar with how things worked,” said Burkey. “Then, just as we were starting to get almost used to things, along came 2020 … and it’s ridiculous. But it’s all right; we’re making it happen.”
While the total number of volunteers for the event was down this year, undoubtedly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Burkey said the public and private sectors stepped up with donations that eclipsed last year.
“We served around 2,400 meals last year and this year we’re looking at 3,000 free dinners going out the door,” Burkey said.
He thanked corporate sponsors that included the West Ohio Food Bank, Bob Evans, Coca-Cola, Nutrien, U.S. Plastic Corp., Rudolph Foods, In-Faith Ministries and Grace Community Church for making it possible.
A few thousand friends traditionally come to the Civic Center on the fourth Thursday of November to sit down at a common table and share a Thanksgiving meal with members of their community. This year there were only a few dozen meals being consumed inside inside the building as the pandemic that has hit Allen County hard necessitated some changes.
Instead of the rows and rows of tightly packed tables that are commonplace at the annual dinner, this year there were only a dozen or so socially distanced tables for patrons to sit down and enjoy their dinner. While most visitors were being encouraged to pick up meals through the drive-thru lane and enjoy them at home, “there are people without cars and people with nowhere else to go,” said Burkey. “We worked closely with the Civic Center and the local health department so we could provide a safe atmosphere for those who needed to eat here.”
Among those seated inside was Lois Smith, who said she felt “grateful … blessed … and most of all, thankful” for the meal and the fellowship.
Also grateful on the day annually set aside to give thanks was a young volunteer. Tyler Sebenoler on Thursday was helping out at the dinner for the second consecutive year.
“I think this event is just a way for the community to celebrate; a way for us all to give thanks,” Sebenoler said. “And I think that being able to serve others adds even more meaning for me than if I would have spent a normal Thanksgiving with my family.”
The community event is a 30-year tradition in Lima. Started by the Chester Cary family in 1989, the free Thanksgiving meal was overseen for 13 years by Jerry Lewis, owner of several McDonald’s restaurants throughout the region.