OAKLAND — Despite restrictions forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers and volunteers came together Thursday to make the annual Messalonskee High School Thanksgiving dinner another success.

Beginning at 11 a.m., people in cars lined up outside the high school to receive hot meals that included roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, vegetables and dessert.

Bill Mushero of Oakland, who was among those in line, said he and his wife typically have their meals at home, so this year’s restrictions did not bother him.

“We usually take them home anyway, so it hasn’t changed my thoughts very much,” Mushero said. “But it is what it is, and we need to try and get beyond this. I have my mask ready if I need to go inside, too.”

Mushero said he planned to make a donation to help with the cost of the dinner.

“We appreciate them preparing the meals for us, but we don’t look for free gifts,” Mushero said. “I think it’s a great thing. And I’m not sure who finances it, but I want to help.”

As Mushero and many others waited for meals, another line of cars loaded up meals to make home deliveries.

“Ever since I got my driver’s license, we’ve been volunteering,” said Derek Bard, who was accompanied by his wife, Sheri, son Nolan, friends Gary and Zoey Hickey and their children Maddux, Kennedi and Lily.

“I love meeting new people. It’s one of my favorite things about this, so I’m kind of sad,” Gary Hickey said. “But I’m glad that we can at least deliver meals for them. We got the whole crew here to help.”

Quinn Charles, 10, carries a tray of pies Wednesday while preparing for the annual Messalonskee Community Dinner in Oakland. Charles was volunteering to help with the dinner with brother, Tucker, 18, far left, sister, Journey, 16, left, and mother, Joy, far right. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

On average, the dinner serves about 1,500 meals that are free to attendees.

Volunteers cooked 60 turkeys and baked more than 300 pies in the days leading up the dinner, according to Mike Perkins, chairman of the Oakland Town Council and longtime organizer for the dinner.

“I think after all these years we have a pretty good system,” Perkins said Wednesday.

Thursday’s event also marked the first community dinner since the passing of one of its founders Edward “Bud” King, who died in September at the age of 97.

King and his family founded the dinner in 1990, along with friend Mike Marston.

“We’ll miss interacting with the people in here, but under the circumstances, we still have a need out there and we still want to serve that need,” Marston said. “It’s just a great community and family effort.”  

Organizers honored King by playing taps on the trumpet and offering a moment of silence.

King’s daughter, Dru Aslam, was at Thursday’s event.

“We’re very grateful that this could happen today,” Aslam said. “We were concerned first with COVID and then the weather forecast, but we’re happy that this could happen.”

Aslam said her father would be happy to know the dinner was carrying on even after his passing.

“Dad would be thrilled that this is continuing,” Aslam said. “It’s just crazy that he passed at the end of September and this is the first meal without him, during the middle of COVID.”

Organizers also placed one meal on a table in the cafeteria in King’s honor.

Tucker Charles, 18, left, his brother, Quinn, 10, and mother, Joy, prepare pies Wednesday for the annual Messalonskee Community Dinner in Oakland. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Volunteers spent eight hours preparing the meals Wednesday under the watchful eye of Jessica Garten, who has overseen the kitchen operation for the past 15 years.

“It’s tough. What’s hard for me is that I can only have 15 people in the kitchen,” Garten said Wednesday. “And those 15 people have to be here start to finish.

“I can’t have people coming and going. That is my biggest challenge this year. It’s been hard to find people to stay from six in the morning until two in the afternoon.”

The long hours did not bother Joy Charles and her three children Journey, Tucker and Quinn.

The family has been volunteering at the dinner for more than seven years and did not let the COVID-19 restrictions stop them from coming back.

“We just love volunteering and giving back to the community,” Joy said. “It’s really hard because this was not only about getting a meal, it was about the social aspect for a lot of people.

“It was so nice for them to come out and see each other, and a lot of them have been stuck home with the COVID restrictions. We’re just hoping this reaches all of those people in their homes.”

Perkins also said he will miss socializing with the community during this year’s dinner.

“It feels very different. Part of it is just about the warmth that’s generated through this event,” Perkins said. “Under the masks, we can’t see people’s smiles and I’ve had people come in here for years now that say the only reason why they come here is because they can’t afford a dinner all by themselves. They get to come in and eat with other people, which is great.

“It’s the warmth, it’s the handshake, it’s the people you don’t see but once a year. I miss that. But it is what it is, and we’ll be ready for next year.”

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