Members of the Rotary Club of Tracy Sunrise weren’t about to let a pandemic get in the way of the 25th annual Senior Thanksgiving Dinner, as the club switched gears and turned the annual sit down dinner at the Tracy Portuguese Hall to a delivery and drive-thru event.

Nearly 200 club members and volunteers gathered on Saturday and Sunday to cook and box more than 400 turkey dinners for seniors across Tracy. The annual dinner is the club’s largest community service project of the year.

Rotarian Harold Reich has been involved with the dinner for more than 15 years, noting the club was determined to host the annual dinner, pandemic or not.

 “We decided early on with the COVID restrictions and all those things that we were going to do it one way or another,” Reich said. “We had always kind of hoped to be able to let people inside and enjoy the meal together because we feel that big part of the whole event is the social aspect of people getting together and eating together and visiting.”

Rotary Club of Tracy Sunrise, which had been involved with the dinner for years, took over leading the event four years ago.

Reich and other Rotarians cooked 37 turkeys, filling the Portuguese hall ovens up to 20 birds at a time on Saturday.

Another crew of volunteers came in Sunday morning to debone them and cook the side dishes before everything was assembled in to-go boxes.

“I always look forward to the cook-the-turkeys day — the smells, working with club members — I would have missed it,” Reich said.

The club received turkey donations, monetary donations and this year received pet food and gift donations to give to seniors with dogs and cats.

San JoaquinCounty gave packages of masks and hand sanitizers and other groups gave cookies and healthy snacks to add to the senior meals.

“Everybody wants in, some way or another, with the situation,” Reich said.

Volunteers packaged and boxed everything including gravy, salads, cranberry sauce, rolls and water that were staged on tables in the hall so they could be assembled with the turkey dinner into complete meals out for delivery.

“It’s pretty well organized and we know what were doing. Generally we’re serving salads and then main meal but this year it’s all going out at the same time so it’s a little more logistically organized that way,” Reich said.

Seniors had been calling to see if there was still going to be a dinner and if they could sign up so the club knew there was an interest to continue the dinner somehow.

Cindy Gustafson, co-president of Rotary Club of Tracy Sunrise, knew seniors still wanted to have the dinner if it could be delivered to them.

“They are fine with delivery and they’re excited to just get what they can get especially now as we go into this next phase of the pandemic where they are going to be shut in again,” Gustafson said.

With all the community donations, the dinner has become a community event.

“A lot of great people in the community, organizations, a lot of companies donated money so we could purchase a lot of the side dishes and some of the turkeys,” Gustafson said. “Instead of just the dinner we’re actually reaching to these seniors and giving them all these other goodies to so they can feel loved.”

On Sunday afternoon about 40 drivers lined up to take bags delivering more than 400 meals Thanksgiving dinners and other donations to seniors who couldn’t gather at the hall. Another 75 dinners were handed out to seniors who drove down to the hall to pick them up.

It was important to keep the keep the dinner going through the pandemic for seniors.

“Especially because we knew from our donations to low income seniors how important it is to have this dinner, for a lot of them this is the only dinner they will get especially now because they can’t go out to see their loved ones,” Gustafson said.

Reich was hoping things will be back to normal next year and seniors will fill the hall with their friends for dinner once again.

“It’s been a new experience, hopefully it’s the only time we’ll have to do this,” Reich said.

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