HIGHLAND — Local injury attorney Kenneth J. Allen and the Lake Area United Way partnered for the fifth consecutive year to distribute 1,200 Thanksgiving dinners to residents in need this holiday season.
Recipients claimed their meals during a drive-thru giveaway between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday outside the Wicker Park Social Center, marking the first time the giveaway has been held outdoors — one of many turning points for the event this year.
The number of meals Allen donated itself reveals how much the need has grown from years past, which is likely a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Lisa Daugherty, president and CEO of Lake Area United Way.
"The need is immensely greater," Daugherty said, adding that United Way distributed between 800 to 1,000 meals during previous giveaways.
Everyone who claimed a dinner needed to preregister for one, Daugherty said. Whereas slots typically filled up within a week in previous years, all recipients signed up this year in about 36 hours.
Volunteers distributed meals to about 500 to 600 people within a few hours Monday, Daugherty said.
Allen said the impacts of COVID-19 made logistics more important than ever this year, prompting the shift to curbside pickup. The move proved challenging and restricted United Way’s ability to offer services it otherwise would have, such as an employment development program, he said.
Nonetheless, he remains hopeful that this will be a one-time exception and the event will make a return to tradition in November 2021.
"This season of this year, and particularly this year, it’s important for us to all try to take care of each other and show people love," Allen said.
Allen had been donating meals to the community for about two decades before partnering with United Way five years ago. He said coming up in a working class family and knowing people firsthand who were in need inspired the initiative.
"I have been fortunate in life, and it’s important for me to give back to our community,” Allen said. “It’s important that we all stay connected and not lose sight of where we came from and who we are as people."
North Township Trustee and U.S. Representative-elect Frank J. Mrvan, who has been a partner of the event since its inception, said people of many socioeconomic backgrounds claimed meals Monday.
Each recipient displayed an immense amount of gratitude, Mrvan said. Some were even in tears, he added.
"As we're going through the pandemic and there's work stoppages and uncertainty, people were extremely grateful to be able to receive a Thanksgiving meal," Mrvan said. "It was something that I was lucky to be a part of."
The generosity of other local entities and officials was also on full display this week.
State Rep. Mike Andrade, D-Munster, showed up at the giveaway with a donation of his own, Daugherty said — about 26 turkeys for people who missed the registration deadline.
East Chicago’s American Legion Allied Post 369 has also donated 40 turkeys, which will be distributed Tuesday, Mrvan said.
Additionally, Minnesota-based food corporation Cargill donated $5,000 to the cause, Daugherty said. United Way is using the money to provide families still on a waiting list with discounted gift cards for Strack & Van Til, which provided the 1,200 dinners given away Monday.
"All these partners that have come together and donated their hard-earned money and services to make sure our most vulnerable populations are being served — especially on Thanksgiving, a day of thanks — is something that should be commended," Mrvan said.
Allen echoed Mrvan's thoughts, adding that everyone who is able to help those in need should, especially because of the challenges so many are facing this year.
"I think Northwest Indiana is a great place. There are a lot of people with a lot of heart that want to pitch in and help. I saw that today, and I see that every year," Allen said. "I think if we work together, the world is going to be a much better place."