AUBURN — Jeremiah Otis nearly gave up on trying to serve the annual community Friendsgiving meal in the year of COVID-19.

Instead, the free Thanksgiving meal is returning for its seventh year — at 4-5 times its previous size.

Otis and a small army of volunteers are preparing to hand out 1,300 meals next week at six sites throughout DeKalb County.

Meals will be distributed Wednesday and Thursday, depending on the location, in Ashley, Auburn, Butler Garrett, and Waterloo. (See the list accompanying this story for details.)

“The community has always supported this,” Otis said. “They’re doing it again this year in a bigger way than they ever have before.” Donations are coming from private citizens and businesses.

“This is genuinely an expression of love from the community back to the community,” Otis said. “I’m proud to be a part of a community like DeKalb County … we are making it happen, and I hope we can be an example to other communities about how to get along.”

For the event’s first six years, Otis and his helpers prepared and served the meals at Jeremiah’s • coffee shop in downtown Auburn.

Otis sold the coffee shop this year to Dawn Burris and Kyrstin Kocher, who intended to carry on the tradition. However, Otis convinced them it would not be safe to pack 200-300 diners into the shop on Thanksgiving Day.

“Without their push, I was fully prepared to cancel this event this year,” Otis said about the shop’s new owners. “Those two ladies have very big hearts, and they love this community.”

This year especially, Otis said, he realized the need for the Thanksgiving meal was greater than ever.

In response, the meal has become the countywide project Otis always envisioned.

“It was probably 20-some-odd people that were involved in the conversation from different parts of the community around the county” to reimagine the meal effort, Otis said.

The project needed a place large enough to prepare 1,300 meals, and First United Methodist Church of Auburn offered the use of its kitchen and volunteered to be a distribution point.

The church kitchen is “more than big enough to put 15 people in and spread them out,” Otis said.

The Italian Grille of Auburn and Kaiser’s Supermarket of Butler helped in finding enough meat — approximately 35 turkeys at 16 pounds each and 300 pounds of ham.

For the first time, the meat will be cooked off-site by a vendor for uniformity and safety.

Otis’s team of chefs still will have plenty do to on Tuesday at the church kitchen. They’ll be carving the turkeys and hams and preparing 500 pounds of mashed potatoes, 350 pounds of corn, 84 pounds of stuffing, plus desserts, rolls and gravy.

“We have a bunch of food-safe-certified people involved in this, so we all know the rules,” Otis said.

Walmart Distribution Center donated the use of a 53-foot, refrigerated trailer to be parked outside the church to store the ingredients until they are cooked and then the meals until they are served.

Every meal will be boxed in advance, and each will include both turkey and ham as main courses.

“We’ve worked very hard to make the portion sizes incredibly generous,” Otis said.

The meal always has been free of charge to anyone who shows up, with no questions asked.

This year, however, there will be one question: “How many boxes do you need?”

“We have never run out in the past,” Otis said. “This year we have worked hard to try, but there is no way to predict what will happen. We anticipate some locations, if not all, will run out, and we’re very sorry for that, but we’re doing what we can.”

If any food is left over, each pickup location will determine how to use those meals in its community.

The total cost of the project is around $4,000, Otis said.

“If people want to help, they’re welcome to send financial donations,” Otis said. Contributions may be mailed to the Auburn Church of the Nazarene, 2301 N. Main St., Auburn, IN 46706. Checks can be made payable to Auburn Church of the Nazarene and need to say “FriendsGiving 2020” in the memo line.

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