HAZLETON — In other years, Joe Maddon might have worn an apron as he ladled out his spaghetti sauce and signed autographs for diners inside Hazleton One Community Center.
But on Wednesday, he donned a parka with a furry hood and loaded turkeys as frozen as he was into 500 cars driving through the parking lot of the center that he co-founded.
The pandemic had forced Maddon to serve takeouts instead of a sit-down dinner for Thanksmas, his annual holiday meal for people in need. During COVID-19, he said, there is no playbook.
“You have to be fluid, adaptable,” Maddon said.
Major League Baseball adapted by shortening its schedule and limited travel help players, coaches and managers like Maddon of the Los Angeles Angles, reduce their exposure to the virus.
The Hazleton Integration Project that operates the center, he said, “has been nimble the entire year.”
Instead of playing basketball in the center’s gym, students who don’t have internet at home have been sitting at computers safely spaced between the baselines. They listened as teachers delivered lessons online rather than in classrooms, although even the center had to close that service to students last week as the pandemic worsened.
The take-outs for Thanksmas evolved from occasions this spring when the center helped distribute meals that students would have eaten in cafeterias if schools had stayed open.
Like schools, the center also closed its offices in the spring, as well as temporarily stopping its pre-school and after-school programs, adult classes and sports.
“We need to do something,” Rossanna Gabriel, the center’s executive director, remembered thinking.
What she and others at the center did was to begin distributing food on Wednesdays, an effort helping 100 people initially and now serves 500.
Elaine Curry, Maddon’s cousin, wishes the center had even more food.
“Whatever we do, could be done in a greater amount. The need here is great. We never have enough,” said Curry, a board member at the center, which her husband, Bob, founded with Maddon seven years ago.
She credited Gabriel with planning the drive-through for Thanksmas.
“It’s so well organized,” Curry said.
Before 9 a.m., vehicles started waiting along Seybert Street by the entrance to the parking lot in a line that backed up on Seybert and curved along East Fifth Street.
At the first stop, volunteers verified that drivers had registered before handing them $20 gift certificates from Giant Food Stores and pairs of socks.
Next, drivers who had children stopped for toys and stuffed animals donated by Boscov’s department stores, Pet Smart and Valley Santa.
Then vehicles paused beside a table lined with turkeys that Maddon, his wife, Jaye, and others carried to the cars, along with boxes of food. Maddon’s Respect 90 Foundation bought the turkeys. The boxes came from the Weinberg Northeast Regional Food Bank and contained breakfast bars, canned vegetables, chili, peanut butter and other food.
About 50 people volunteered to set up on Tuesday and load cars just before snow began falling on Wednesday, when temperatures stayed in the low 20s.
Volunteers matter, Maddon said, whether in Los Angeles, Tampa Bay where he previously managed and started Thanksmas, or his hometown, where he returns for the holidays.
“For everybody to at least volunteer one day of your services annually where you live, the effect will be exponential,” he said. “Furthermore, your perspective is going to be enhanced.”
Perspective came to him, not just from traveling through Minor League towns and Major League cities during a career, but from the influences on him growing up in the 1960s and 70s.
“I was taught to question what is going on around you. In the back of my mind,” he said, “just to follow the group isn’t necessarily the best thing in the world.”
The manager who questioned why the pitcher always bats ninth or why players need to spend all day at the ballpark before a night game also turned his thoughts homeward.
In a city settled historically by waves of immigrants who came to mine coal, why can’t today’s immigrants and established residents be one community, the aspiration that game name to his center?
“We were met with a lot of resistance. That was OK. If you just follow, maybe you’re going to miss opportunities,” Maddon said.
He believes the center is making the impact that he hoped for and helping more residents, whether they speak English or Spanish, to consider that his hometown, like all of America, is becoming more diverse.
“This is the best place, was the best place,” Maddon said. “We want to make it the best place again.”