The Frank Veltri Thanksgiving dinner, a Charleston tradition dating back 54 years, will go on this year despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
There will be no mass gathering on Thanksgiving Day for the dinner this year. Instead, a team of drivers will deliver meals to those in need on Saturday.
When Veltri started this tradition in 1966, he wanted to ensure that every senior, shut-in or vulnerable resident would eat a Thanksgiving meal with no questions asked. For Traci Strickland, executive director of the Kanawha Valley Collective and a longtime lead organizer for the Veltri dinner, there was zero chance this tradition would be killed by COVID-19.
“Even knowing it looks very, very different this year, people are going to have Thanksgiving food for Thanksgiving,” Strickland said.
First and foremost, she said, more volunteers are needed to make it happen. On Saturday beginning at 9:30 a.m., delivery drivers will hit the streets — but organizers still need more drivers to make sure every meal gets delivered, Strickland said.
Six hundred bags containing four Thanksgiving servings each will be delivered Saturday.
Volunteers will spend Thursday and Friday preparing and packaging the meals, which include turkey breast, ham steak, green beans, corn, cranberry sauce, instant potatoes, stuffing, mini pies and bread.
COVID-19 made planning the dinner quite difficult, Strickland said. The most dedicated volunteers started asking her in June if the dinner would happen at all this year.
“For some of us, myself included, that was just really not a possibility as long as it’s possible to do,” she said. “So many people are not only used to it, but there’s people that rely on this dinner.”
Now, with the day nearly here and West Virginians dying from COVID-19 at a rate faster than at any other time during the pandemic, Strickland said it was the right call to take the dinner mobile.
“Here we are right now, seeing this uptick in COVID-19 cases, so we really know we made the right decision — that we weren’t too conservative,” she said.
People expect the Veltri dinner to look the same every year, Strickland said, which also complicated the planning process.
“Planning an event that is really a Charleston institution and a Thanksgiving tradition for a lot of people is difficult,” she said. “People don’t like seeing change.”
Volunteers for the dinner date back to the days of Veltri himself, who died in 2001. Strickland said the volunteers have turned the dinner into a “well-oiled machine,” with the cooking and prep process becoming choreographed. Strickland has worked on the dinner for the past 15 years.
“My extended family know they’re not going to see me until 2 or 3 in the afternoon because I’m doing the Veltri dinner,” Strickland said about normal Thanksgiving Days.
Strickland still delivers to the high-rise her grandmother used to live in before she died. She said that, like many other longtime volunteers, it’s the people who always bring everyone back.
“The sweetness and the gratitude of the people that I get the privilege to deliver Thanksgiving dinner to is just amazing,” she said.
The hope is that, by Thanksgiving 2021, all will be back to normal and the dinner will return to an in-person gathering, Strickland said. Whether that’s possible, she added, only time will tell.
Regardless, the Veltri dinner is happening in 2020 because of these dedicated community members — gathering or no gathering.
“It’s not something that just happens,” Strickland said, “it’s something our community members and volunteers are invested in.”