Some national health officials have called for the cancellation of Thanksgiving this year in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, organizers for the annual Thanksgiving Community Feast in Ellis County have said the feast will go on — just in a different format.


The free feast will be a drive-thru food pickup event from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26, at Gella’s Diner, 117 E. 11th St. In addition, First Call for Help will be delivering meals that day to its Meals on Wheels clients, the elderly, homebound, disabled and quarantined individuals through contactless delivery.


The Ellis County Ministerial Alliance (ECMA), which has organized the feast for the past 12 years, is once again the sponsor.


Organizers are planning on at least 700 meals, "but that may go up as we have a fuller understanding of the community need," said the Rev. Celeste Lasich, head of the ECMA planning committee. "We don’t want to run out of food."


The committee must give a final count to Gella’s on Nov. 2.


For that reason, Lasich is encouraging people to pre-register now for the number of meals they will need. Individuals who plan to utilize the drive-thru or walk-up format may pre-register at https://signup.com/go/NXaeNyy. The website will ask them to select a pickup time.


Individuals who meet the criteria of elderly, homebound, disabled or quarantined may pre-register by calling First Call at 785-623-2800 for contactless home delivery. First Call’s office hours are 8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.


"We are encouraging families, churches, group living homes, and other groups who can safely socially gather to plan to host their Thanksgiving meal utilizing this community Thanksgiving feast," Lasich said. "So the host could pick up meals at Gella’s for the rest of the guests."


While the feast’s format has changed, the menu hasn’t. Once again it will consist of turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, a roll and dessert.


The committee is working with the Hays Police Department on traffic control for the area around Gella’s. Walk-up access will be available for people who don’t drive to the restaurant. However, there will be no inside seating, Lasich said.


"Community has always been the heart of this event. Even though we cannot gather safely in the same space, with the meals we will also be providing resources to encourage connection and gratitude," Lasich said.


Another aspect of the feast that has not changed is that bags of groceries will be distributed free from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thanksgiving Day at the Community Assistance Center, 208 E. 12th St.


Lasich said that, as in the past, there are no income requirements for an individual wanting a sack of groceries. The sacks will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis as long as supplies last.


Ken Brooks with Celebration Community Church said volunteers will be at Dillons, 1902 Vine, and Walmart, 4301 N. Vine, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21, collecting nonperishable food items for the sacks. Lasich said customers at those locations would be given printed lists of needed items.


Linda Mills, executive director of First Call for Help, said about 40 volunteers are needed to help with meal deliveries, traffic control and meal distribution the day of the event. Volunteers may sign up by calling 785-623-2800.


While the dinner is free, monetary donations will be accepted at the grocery collection sites and at Gella’s during the meal drive-thru event. Monetary donations may also be mailed to First Call for Help, 607 E. 13th St., Hays, KS 67601. Donors are asked to designate that the money is for the Thanksgiving Feast.


Lasich said the committee decided to move the event downtown this year to better accommodate members of the community who live in that area and may not have adequate transportation to get to other parts of town.


Lasich, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hays, said her committee has been planning this very different type of community feast since spring.


"I am grateful for the energy and creativity of so many people as we pivoted from a sit-down event to a very different type of event," she said. "We know that while this meets people’s physical needs for a celebration meal, it also meets people’s deeper needs.


"People need to know they are not alone. As a community, we can come together to take care of one another."