OAK HARBOR, Wash. — For twelve years, volunteers in Oak Harbor have put on a huge Thanksgiving feast, filling local halls and feeding 2,000 to 3,000 people at a time.
It is a time when the entire community comes together, the well-heeled, the homeless, the hungry, the lonely and everyone in between.
But COVID-19 has now claimed that tradition as its latest casualty.
"I panicked," said Jean Wieman, who runs Help House, an organization that feeds Whidbey Island's hungry. "The community dinner means so much here. It's great. It's like going over to your grandparents' house."
Coronavirus restrictions have canceled the party where local doctors carve deep fried turkeys and no one goes away hungry.
The cancelation has now left a hole in the community safety net with many left wondering where they will get a Thanksgiving meal this year.
Uilani Klattenhoff came to Oak Harbor from her native Hawaii with nothing more than a suitcase, some shorts and t-shirts. She knows hardship and has no family in Oak Harbor. To her, the community is her family.
"Everyone who walks through my door, I tell them you're Ohana now, and Ohana means family," she said.
Klattenhoff opened Kau Kau Corner, a restaurant that has struggled under the coronavirus pandemic. Even so, she is planning to deliver more than 100 hot meals to the hungry in her community this Thanksgiving. The food is going to those who normally would've eaten at the city's legendary community feast.
"Because it's not always about making money. It's really about sharing the aloha," Klattenhoff said, wiping away tears. "There have been some low, scary times, but I'm truly blessed. God has blessed me. I just want to share that and encourage people."
At Help House, Wieman's group is now helping fill the hole left by the COVID cancelation. She's expecting to distribute about 350 boxes of food, including turkeys, stuffing and potatoes for those who can't afford a holiday meal.
Wieman said she understands hardship, too.
"I know what it's like to have to go into the grocery store. I remember my mom waiting until it was later in the night to go get food because she didn't want everybody to know we were getting food stamps," she said.
Wieman said she's seeing people who have never needed food assistance before coming to Help House for support.
"They're telling me they never thought they'd be in this position. It's heartbreaking," Wieman said.
A few other organizations are helping out, as well, this Thanksgiving. They'll only be able to feed a fraction of those who normally enjoy the community feast, but they're thankful they can at least do that.
A community coming together to nourish the body and spirit of its people.
"We do this because we take care of our community," Klattenhoff said. "Good food is to the soul. It's always to the soul."