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Watch now: How Bloomington-Normal celebrated Thanksgiving, despite the pandemic
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HOLIDAY SEASON

Watch now: How Bloomington-Normal celebrated Thanksgiving, despite the pandemic

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Pastor Heather Whicker from True Hope Four Square Church, 1100 E. Jackson St., Bloomington, volunteers to prepare carryout Thanksgiving meals at Abundant Life Church in downtown Bloomington.

BLOOMINGTON — Whether it was at home, on the road or at places serving those in need, Thanksgiving was certainly different this year, but the holiday maintained a common theme of food, family and feelings of gratitude.

Many people reported having smaller gatherings this year and — from restaurants to churches — meals switched from indoors to outdoors or to-go boxes.

At Abundant Life in Christ Church, a non-denominational church in downtown Bloomington, its small staff, bolstered by volunteers, was preparing to serve 200 to 300 people a Thanksgiving meal.

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Bridget Carter, left, and her sister, Angie, members of the Full Gospel Church in Heyworth, serve up donated pie from Hy-Vee as they volunteered to prepare carryout Thanksgiving meals at Abundant Life Church, 108 E. Market St. in downtown Bloomington on Thursday. The church was expecting to serve about 300 homeless and under-employed for the holiday.

“We usually gather at tables inside,” but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, tables were set up outside and Pastor Charles Ahrens said, “We expect the meals will be mostly to go.”

Angie Carter of Full Gospel Church in Heyworth was cutting pies with her sister, Bridget Carter, as part of an assembly line of volunteers in the kitchen.

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Volunteers Mary Ahrens and Mary Mohr prepare carryout Thanksgiving meals at Abundant Life Church in downtown Bloomington. Mary Ahrens is the mother of Abundant Life Pastor Charles Ahrens.

Although her sister had volunteered before, this was Angie Carter’s first time.

“Especially with this year going on, everybody needs a little help and love,” she said.

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Cracker Barrel servers Brianna Eades of Normal and Cassie Thomas of Bloomington hang a Happy Thanksgiving sign for those waiting in line for their Thanksgiving meal at 502 Brock Dr. in Bloomington on Thursday. With many families social distancing for the holiday, grandma's cooking wasn't easily replaced but the restaurant, known for its family style cooking, helped bridge the gap.

Abundant Life serves more than 400 meals a week through daily lunches and also operates a clothing and food pantry.

Ahrens said he was thankful for the people the church gets to help, the ministry staff and volunteers and the community itself.

“There’s always a big need,” he said.

Meanwhile, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store in Bloomington was as busy as ever despite having no inside dining service. Instead, cars were lined up, following colored arrows in the parking lot to pick up orders large and small.

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Cracker Barrel server Brianna Eades of Normal delivers Thanksgiving meals to customers parked in line Thursday.

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Manager Jasmine Booth said business was about the same as a typical Thanksgiving and she recognized some familiar faces among the customers picking up orders. With staff outside directing traffic and delivering meals, she was thankful for Thursday’s dry weather after two days of rain.

Brandi Martin of Carlock was thankful for the dry weather, too. As her shift at Cracker Barrel neared its end, she was looking forward to dinner at home with her husband, his mother and her parents.

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Employees Brandi Martin of Carlock and Cassie Thomas of Bloomington prepare to deliver Thanksgiving meals to drive up customers at Cracker Barrel on Thursday.

“Normally, we would have had 16 to 20 people, but this year we’re keeping it small,” she said. “We’re going to do the call and talk to each other.”

Cynthia Lopez of Bloomington was picking up the family platter for eight. Usually she and her family would eat inside the Cracker Barrel on Thanksgiving, but they kept the tradition alive in modified form with the carryout meal.

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Pastor Roy Koonce takes inventory of non-perishable food boxes at Abundant Life Church, 108 E. Market St. in downtown Bloomington on Thursday. Koonce said they are building inventory as they anticipate a food crisis in McLean County around Christmas, particularly if federal unemployment help runs out across the county.

“I’m thankful for my family,” she said. "Everybody is still healthy.”

Jim and Linda Tabaka of Lakeville, Minnesota, stopped in their large motorhome to pick up their Thanksgiving meal on their way to Florida.

The drive takes them about five days, and this year they started the journey a bit early.

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Linda Tabaka and her husband, Jim, of Lakeville, Minnesota, pick up their Thanksgiving Day lunch at Cracker Barrel, 1502 Brock Dr. in Bloomington, as they drove their RV to be with family on Thanksgiving Day.

“We’re missing family,” Linda Tabaka said. “They said, ‘Go.’ We weren’t going to get together any time” because of COVID-19.

The pandemic also altered traditions at Home Sweet Home Ministries.

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Dozens of pies donated by Bloomington Hy-Vee await packaging as Thanksgiving Day meals are prepared at Abundant Life Church in downtown Bloomington on Thursday. A number of grocery stores and restaurants help Abundant Life meet the needs of the church's outreach ministry to about 2,000 homeless and under-employed people across the area.

Rather than have volunteers crowded together making and delivering hot meals, greetings and gift cards were mailed to recipients of delivered meals last year.

Home Sweet Home Ministries also teamed up with Midwest Food Bank and Thrivent Financial to distribute meal boxes to 2,418 families, representing 8,918 people.

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Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota

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