Local church groups organized on Thanksgiving to make sure families in need would have a meal to appreciate.

As a line of cars filed in from West Marion Avenue, congregation members at First United Methodist Church of Punta Gorda sprung into action.

Lois Sirman, who has worked with the annual Thanksgiving Dinner at the church for years, began packing up meals into bags alongside Peggy Rutledge, a visitor from Ohio.

“I was here with my grandpa, and it just seemed like they needed help,” said Rutledge.

Sirman, Rutledge and other volunteers handed out meals and snacks to community members who drove through and approached on foot, starting just around noon.

Inside First United Methodist’s auditorium, other volunteers organized the donated food into Styrofoam containers before wheeling it out to the distribution point.

Normally, this auditorium would be where a big sit-in dinner would be held; church members serving the people coming in as part of a big community meal.

Sherri O’Connell, the event coordinator, said that the total number of people served by the annual Thanksgiving Dinner at First United Methodist once hit as high as 800.

The First United Methodist Church in Punta Gorda has been hosting their annual Thanksgiving Dinner for 20 years. O’Connell herself has been a volunteer in some capacity for the last six.

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged last year, the sit-in dinner was off. The church transitioned to pickup dinner only, along with the normal deliveries for the infirm and homebound. The total number of people served last year, said O’Connell, was between 300 and 350. They expected to exceed that number this year.

The dinner was still pickup only again this year, but spirits were high all the same in the auditorium.

“We have volunteers for everything,” said O’Connell, estimating that 25 church members were cooking, preparing and packing food on location.

Two volunteers — married couple Jay Ward and Shirley DeJean — said they were happy to be delivering food to those in need.

“They mentioned it at the Men of Faith (Bible study) meeting, and I thought I should help out,” said Ward, loading the delivery meals into his car.

“I’ve always wanted to be busy on Thanksgiving,” said DeJean.

In addition to donations from the First United congregation — including over 50 pre-cooked turkeys — O’Connell also noted that the Peachland Avenue Publix has regularly donated bread for the dinner over the years.

In Englewood, volunteers at the Gulf Cove United Methodist Church prepared, packaged and served 800 take-out turkey dinners Thanksgiving day.

While the event was set to begin at noon, two lines of cars snaked around the church campus at about 11:15 a.m., threatening to block traffic on State Road 776. Volunteers began handing out the meals two vehicles at a time, as people drove up to the church’s back door, loaded up and headed home, many handing volunteers checks or cash donations.

By 1 p.m., the last few meals were packed and sent out

Gulf Cove United Methodist has been serving free Thanksgiving dinners for 25 years, said volunteer Anne Devilbiss. They started in 1996; by 1998, they were serving 200 sit-down dinners in the sanctuary.

Like their counterparts in Punta Gorda, the church transitioned from inside dining to take-out only during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and kept that process this year.

“The gratitude people show is always overwhelming,” said the Rev. Mike Weaver, pastor. “People were crying, thanking us.”

Englewood/North Port Editor Chris Porter contributed to this report.

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