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Thankful for Tradition Despite pandemic, school Thanksgiving dinner thrives

  • Fifth-grader Laken Garbel enjoys her Thanksgiving dinner with her classmates.

    Fifth-grader Laken Garbel enjoys her Thanksgiving dinner with her classmates.
    TRAVIS DENEAL PHOTO

  • Benjie Willsey's fifth-grade class pauses for a photo of their Thanksgiving meal, courtesy of state Sen. Dale Fowler and Heaven's Kitchen volunteers.

    Benjie Willsey's fifth-grade class pauses for a photo of their Thanksgiving meal, courtesy of state Sen. Dale Fowler and Heaven's Kitchen volunteers.
    TRAVIS DENEAL PHOTO

  • Benjie Willsey's fifth-grade class watches a Thanksgiving message from state Sen. Dale Fowler wishing the class a happy Thanksgiving.

    Benjie Willsey's fifth-grade class watches a Thanksgiving message from state Sen. Dale Fowler wishing the class a happy Thanksgiving.
    TRAVIS DENEAL PHOTO

 
By Travis DeNeal tdeneal@dailyregister.com
Posted on 11/20/2020, 4:57 PM

HARRISBURG -- In a normal year, the fifth-grade class of East Side Intermediate teacher Benjie Willsey would have celebrated an early Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday with Harrisburg's mayor, police chief, fire chief, school board members, local politicians and other well-known members of the community.

Under Willsey's direction, students write a letter to an invitee and ask for an RSVP. On the day of the feast, each student sits with his or her guest and learns a little about that person and presents them with a handmade memento of the occasion.

It's a tradition Willsey has kept for the past 20 years, and it's one her students eagerly anticipate, she says.

"They really look forward to it. We spend quite a bit of time learning about the first Thanksgiving and related topics," Willsey said. "And they enjoy writing the letters to their guests and waiting to hear back from them."

Thursday was no different from past years in some regards: as students dined on turkey, ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans and biscuits, Willsey asked questions about what they have been studying.

Hands shot into the air as the fifth-graders competed with one another to be the first to answer correctly. The "eagle vs. turkey" debate about the national symbol was discussed, as was a point of Illinois pride -- that the state is the country's leading producer of pumpkins, and how Minnesota raises more turkeys than any other state.

However, this year's class Thanksgiving dinner had an added twist due to concerns about COVID-19, Willsey said.

"We had planned the dinner, and then when the number of COVID cases started going up and the rules changed, we were going to have to cancel it," she said. "My kids were really disappointed."

However, state Sen. Dale Fowler had other thoughts. Fowler, a frequent guest of Willsey's Thanksgiving dinner, wanted to ensure that the tradition would continue.

"She had contacted me to let me know they would have to cancel, and she was very disappointed for her students," Fowler said. "Then I had an idea about trying to do something to help provide a Thanksgiving dinner and asked our volunteers at Heaven's Kitchen if they would help, which they were glad to do."

Fowler, who started the Heaven's Kitchen weekly dinner program in Harrisburg, asked the program's volunteers if they could prepare meals to take to Willsey's class. On Thursday, volunteers delivered the Thanksgiving meals. Fowler was unable to attend in person, but he sent Willsey a video to share with her class of Fowler wishing the students a happy Thanksgiving.

"It may not be the perfect classroom Thanksgiving dinner, but at least it was something they could look forward to," Fowler said. "We had dinner with all the trimmings and I had a coloring book for each of them as well. Her program teaches her students a lot of valuable and practical lessons about communication with people, being able to send correspondence and following up. This year was a little different, but at least they had something."

Willsey said she was thankful for the efforts of Fowler and volunteers.

"As an educator, I worry about the experiences my students will miss this school year, but I'm glad we were able to have a Thanksgiving dinner for them," she said. "I know we'll always remember it."