Drop in volunteers jeopardizes ‘crucial’ Thanksgiving tradition for Polk County seniors

Polk County

POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — As a non-profit organization braces for its largest annual event in a quarter-century, it does so amid a sizable drop in volunteers to help make it happen.

Volunteers in Service to the Elderly (VISTE) will deliver Thanksgiving dinners to 2,000 senior citizens in Lakeland, Bartow, Mulberry and Fort Meade Wednesday afternoon.

That is the most amount of meals delivered since the tradition began 25 years ago.

“We’ve had a little bit of an unexpected surprise this year with fewer volunteers signing up,” said Steve Bissonnette, president of VISTE.

Last year, Bissonnette said he had nearly 400 volunteer drivers in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, he has about 225.

“There’s just a lot of things that are different in the world today than they were a year ago so we’re going back to see, did we miss something,” asked Bissonnette. “Was there a communication that went out too late?”

Bissonnette is adamant that all the meals will be delivered next Wednesday but a crucial part of the tradition may be sacrificed. Drivers are instructed to spend quality time with the seniors, which may be their only meaningful interaction for the Thanksgiving holiday.

“Here’s an opportunity for us as a community to reach out to others who are probably on their own this holiday and to let them know they haven’t been forgotten,” said Bissonnette.

Past volunteer drivers recognized the importance of the personal connection.

“They want the company so they’re just so happy that we’re there and we get to talk to them and ask them questions,” said Jen Lay, who delivered a meal with her daughter Jasmine.

People interested in being volunteer drivers on Wednesday afternoon from 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. can register online.

In addition to a volunteer shortage, VISTE is in need of donations of a Thanksgiving dinner staple: — cranberry sauce.

“We’ve reached out to our local grocery stores and our favorite Publix and they said actually they’re having to limit the supply because it’s in shortage right now,” Bissonnette said.

Canned cranberry donations can be dropped off at VISTE Thursday, Friday and Monday from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. at 1232 E. Magnolia Street in Lakeland.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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