After preparing 45 turkeys and a full Thanksgiving dinner for about 400 people, a group of volunteering medical students behind Project Feast also need to prepackage the meals, remember their masks and tape the floors to promote social distancing.
It’s a tall order to orchestrate in any given year, but one that becomes even taller in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Despite having to think through the logistics of keeping everyone safe while doling out dinner, the second-year medical students are thrilled the event is happening — they couldn’t bear the idea of Project Feast being canceled yet again.
For more than 30 years, University of Maryland Medical School students have planned, raised funds and recruited volunteers to host a free sit-down Thanksgiving dinner for those in need. They also offered some health care services such as blood pressure checks. But last year, the event was canceled out of fear of spreading the virus.
“I think all of us experienced a bit of a different Thanksgiving in 2020. This year, we can have those traditions in some way,” said Kate Kiernan, the group’s donations chair. “It’s maybe not the same Project Feast as before, but it’s still bringing back that same festive spirit that we’re trying to get back after a really hard time through the pandemic.”
With more than 75% of Maryland’s eligible population at least partially vaccinated, the ability to gather and give back to those in need this Thanksgiving has become a little more feasible, even as case counts rise across the state and the U.S. It’s a stark contrast compared with this time last year, when vaccines weren’t available and people were encouraged to stay home entirely to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus.
While the risk is not gone entirely, many organizations are resuming volunteer efforts — with adaptations to maximize safety. They say they’re eager to give back, particularly given the toll that COVID-19 has had on many people’s financial and emotional well-being.
The pandemic not only forced people to stay home, it also highlighted disparities across Maryland. And as businesses shuttered and job losses soared, the need for help increased.
Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal said he felt that providing a free Thanksgiving meal to those in need at the establishment’s newest location in Baltimore’s Charles Village became even more important following the isolation of the pandemic.
“I think having to stay at home, it really showed people how important community gatherings are,” Shallal said. “Zoom was great, but nothing can of course match looking humans directly in the eyes.”
On Thanksgiving Day, the restaurant at 3224 St. Paul St. will serve all the traditional fixings from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Shallal said he thinks it will be a unique opportunity for those who may not normally be able to eat inside a restaurant to be able to be doted on and feel special. There also will be an open mic for poetry and performances along with a winter clothing and blanket giveaway.
Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore’s former health commissioner, said there is a higher risk for in-person activities like volunteering than there would be if you were gathering with friends and family, because people likely won’t know everyone’s vaccination status. She encouraged organizers to hold events outside, where the risk of spreading the coronavirus is lower. If something is indoors, volunteers should wear a high-grade mask like an N95 and avoid taking it off, she said.
Those who are vaccinated are likely to be safer, but Wen, now a visiting professor at the George Washington University, warned that it still might not be fully protective.
“Everything is about risk management,” she said.
Tackling how to safely serve people in the COVID era wasn’t too much of a challenge for Busboys and Poets, Shallal said, because the restaurant has been navigating the ever-changing protocols since the pandemic began. Busboys and Poets will comply with Baltimore City mandates, which require anyone indoors not eating or drinking to wear a mask.
The push to hold an event and reach the greater community stemmed largely from the staff, who wanted to make sure that people understood the restaurant’s mission to be an inclusive gathering space, Shallal said.
“We want to be able to be a space where people can break bread together and where everyone can come together from all different areas of the city and just connect,” the restaurant owner said.
While many people are opting for a more traditional Thanksgiving this year, some still are holding off on in-person events. For example, Goodwill of the Chesapeake decided to cancel its annual luncheon for the second consecutive year. The organization has held it in downtown Baltimore every year since 1955.
Instead of hosting a Thanksgiving meal or handing out turkeys, the United Way of Central Maryland opted for a fundraising drive in hopes of spreading resources beyond the holiday season.
Beth Littrell, the United Way’s director of community engagement and volunteerism, said the organization has seen a large influx of people who have been faced with deciding to either pay their electric bill or put food on the table.
The organization has seen a rush of donations since the pandemic began, and those donations typically grow astronomically during the holidays. It’s welcomed, Littrell said, but she wishes the help would be more consistent year-round.
“We appreciate the help, but we need people to understand that this is an ongoing need beyond Thanksgiving,” she said. “The pandemic might be starting to go away but the need is not. So many people are still unemployed and struggling to make ends meet.”
While Kiernan, 28, and Project Feast’s four other organizers aren’t accustomed to volunteering on Thanksgiving, the medical students are looking forward to interacting and connecting with the community they hope to serve when they become doctors.
After finishing an exam Wednesday, the group plans to head to Booker T. Washington Middle School in West Baltimore to finish cooking with the school’s chef and tape the floors to help promote social distancing, among other last-minute tasks.
The group expects to serve about 400 meals at the middle school between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Thanksgiving Day.
Rachel Steger, the volunteer chair, said assisting in planning the event helped remind her how grateful she is for what she has and for the community she lives in.
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“Even after this tough time, we’re just excited for things to move in a positive direction,” the 23-year-old medical student said. “Everyone is still totally desperate for [things to return] to what they are used to be. And this is a starting point.”