JANESVILLE

Thanksgiving will look different for many families this year thanks to the coronavirus, but ECHO still wanted to provide a classic Thanksgiving meal to those who need it most.

The local nonprofit held its annual Thanksgiving basket distribution Saturday, delivering hundreds of boxes of holiday dinner staples—turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, green beans, corn, cranberries and pumpkin pie—to waiting cars at the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds.

Meals were also delivered to some families.

“We really wanted to continue with our holiday traditions and seasonal programming this year, even during the pandemic, because we wanted to provide a sense of normalcy for our participants, volunteers and donors,” ECHO Director Jessica Locher said.

About 50 volunteers helped pack the boxes, a far cry from the usual 200, but the group had impressive timing, Locher said.

The volunteers thought it went well, too.

John Wickhem, who was volunteering with about 10 other people from one of the Rotary Clubs, said nothing was going to stop him from helping others, including the virus.

“It just needed to be done. Life has to continue,” Wickhem said. “You need to do things. If you’re safe, use distance and masking, this is how it should be.”

Rita Milbrandt, who serves on ECHO’s Board of Directors, has helped at the Thanksgiving distribution for many years.

As she packed up boxes and placed frozen turkeys in vehicles Saturday, Milbrandt said she was glad ECHO could still offer the annual event.

“It’s amazing. I think they’ve set it up very well today, getting it organized so everybody can be safe and get their Thanksgiving meal,” she said.

With the pandemic, ECHO is seeing more people who need its services, Locher said. About 200 additional families are currently receiving help through the nonprofit.

ECHO also is seeing more families who need housing help, such as rent assistance and hotel vouchers, she said.

Locher said the organization is receiving as much community assistance as she’s seen in her 16 years there, and that has allowed the staff to keep offering all services.

About 375 meal baskets, each of which feeds six people, were set to be distributed Saturday. ECHO had enough food for 600 baskets because it had to order it in bulk during the summer, but fewer families signed up because fewer people are celebrating Thanksgiving with extended family due to COVID-19.

To ensure nothing is wasted, Locher said the extra food will be used for ECHO’s annual Christmas Day dinner and in its food pantry.

Fewer meals might have distributed, but people such as Sally Deuel of Janesville were no less grateful. She said she was happy to see ECHO helping people in spite of all the obstacles thrown up by the pandemic. Most of all, she couldn’t wait to see what was for Thanksgiving dinner.

“I’m excited to find out what is in there,” she said of the boxes that were loaded into her vehicle.

That’s what the event is supposed to be about, Locher said.

“We’re just very grateful,” she said, “and I know our clients are very appreciative.”

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