The Iroquois Memorial Hospital changed up the style of its annual picnic this year. Not only was it reimagined to become a drive-thru operation rather than a parking-lot picnic, this year it also was at no cost to the community.

“This year, we’ve scaled that down and the vision was to transition from a low-cost opportunity to serve the community to a free one,” said IMH’s CEO Don Williams. “We have a real passion to give something back, and this is just a small token of the hospital’s appreciation for the community.”

On Wednesday, community members were invited to drive through the hospital’s parking lot to receive a bagged lunch of either a hamburger or hot dog. Each bag contained chips, a cookie and a water bottle.

A committee came together to develop the drive-thru operation and to obtain donations from supporters and organizations to make the event possible.

Hospital staff and board members were on site getting all 1,000 bags together and were prepared to hand them out starting at 11 a.m.

Representatives from Gordon Food Service were on hand to man the grill, which was fired around 9:30 a.m. to prepare for the large amounts of hamburgers and hot dogs needed for the event.

By 10:45 a.m., cars were already coming by for the lunch and there were four stations set up to hand out bags as cars went through.

“It was a little less preparation than what we’ve had in the past,” said Rhonda Pence, IMH’s board treasurer, who mentioned having petting zoos and a comfort dog at past picnics.

“The most strategic thing was how we were going to maneuver this drive-thru, so that way we didn’t have people parked around the block. And the rest of it all came together.”

Around 11:30 a.m., three home daycare providers joined together to take their children on a group field trip. A group of about 15 kids got to select their lunches, and gave a resounding “thank you” before heading off to enjoy their food.

“That right there … that’s why we’re doing this,” Williams said of the kids’ visit.

Michelle Fairley, IMH’s chief nursing officer and vice president of customer care, echoed Williams’ excitement as she was pleased to be seeing so many community members.

“Seeing people out again, seeing people getting out again, it’s huge,” Fairley said. “We deal with a lot of people who have been really cooped up without the socialization of others and normalcy. A lot of depression, as everybody knows, has hit. To see people out and coming through with smiles on their face is huge to me.”

However, it wasn’t COVID that inspired the lunch to be free as Williams mentioned that this was originally their plan after concluding the 2019 picnic.

After that last big picnic, Williams said he and the staff were seeing all of the families and young children and there was a tugging on the entire hospital’s heart.

“We all just went, ‘we need to make this free,’” he said.

Williams said that they hope to make next year’s picnic back to the large-scale event with activities for children, but still have the lunch be free. He noted that this will be dependent on COVID cases continuing to decline and communities continuing to reopen.

“COVID continues and it’s the chaos around it that seems to be dampening,” he said. “We still have a lot of people that need to get vaccines.”

Williams said that a majority of the vaccines in the county have been administered by the team at IMH. He said that the team hopes that people will continue to receive vaccines and that “life can become normal again.”

“This health challenge has made the team here more determined to serve the community and has also heightened the awareness of the community of the need to have a hospital inside the county,” he said. “As a hospital, we have a responsibility to serve and to let the community know what we can do to serve them. The community has responded and we’re thankful to be here.”