CHEYENNE – The COVID-19 pandemic has found a record number of people in personal crisis this Thanksgiving.

Beyond public health concerns, scores of people have either lost their jobs or taken pay cuts that make celebrating the holidays with a festive meal a challenge.

The increased need for food during this holiday season was not lost on Donnie and Heather Heiduck, a Cheyenne couple who started the Gobbler Gang about six years ago.

The Gobbler Gang is an informal charitable group that raises money to buy turkeys, which it then donates to charitable organizations that give out holiday meals to those in need.

During a typical year, the Gobbler Gang donates around 500 turkeys for Thanksgiving. This year, they donated around 300. That’s because fewer organizations are hosting a meal due to social distancing restrictions, not because fewer people donated money.

On the contrary, “A lot of people stepped up this year,” said Heather Heiduck, as she reflected on the hardships so many people are facing because of COVID-19.

“I think this was an avenue to give back.”

Donnie Heiduck said the turnout this year “was a recognition of what we’re actually going through” during the pandemic.

Donnie, who works in law enforcement, said he originally started the Gobbler Gang as “a way to give back something positive, especially when I was doing a job where I saw a lot of negative. … This Gobbler Gang came up because it was a need not being met by anything else.”

The Heiducks have set up an account for the Gobbler Gang at the Cheyenne-Laramie County Employees Federal Credit Union, which allows anyone to donate money to the cause of providing holiday meals.

Andrew Dyl, a Cheyenne firefighter, has been involved in charitable causes for years – which is how he met Donnie – but he hadn’t given money to the Gobbler Gang until this year.

“Donnie reached out this year saying the Gobbler Gang needed more help, and that they were scared they wouldn’t have enough money because so many families were asking for help,” said Dyl, who recognized his good fortune to still have kept his job during the pandemic when so many others have not.

“It just seemed like the way this year has gone, we needed to get a bunch of people to rally behind what the Gobbler Gang is doing.”

Between donations from his union, Cheyenne Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 279, his wife’s employee union and friends and family, Dyl was able to raise a total of $2,500 to give to the Gobbler Gang.

“Given the tough year for everybody, it just feels appropriate to end the year on a more positive note and get the community toward the finish line of 2020,” Dyl said. “Hopefully better things will come.”

The money Dyl and others contributed helped buy turkeys for local charities like The Salvation Army and the Boys and Girls Club. It also helped Glen Chavez, a Cheyenne barber who’s hosted Thanksgiving for active duty military members and veterans for the past decade.

Although Chavez usually hosts a big dinner for service members, this year he had to improvise to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Last Friday, he met Donnie at the Walmart parking lot on Dell Range Boulevard to pick up more than 150 turkeys.

Last Saturday, Chavez set up a pick-up line outside of USATaxWyo, and military members and veterans came to pick up their turkeys to enjoy at small, socially distant gatherings on Thanksgiving Day. Chavez even had enough turkeys – courtesy of the Gobbler Gang – to give some away to the general public, too.

“The Gobbler Gang is one of my biggest donors,” Chavez said. “Donnie is a godsend. Without the Gobbler Gang, this would be impossible.”

The Heiducks received so much support this year that they plan to extend their mission to include food donations during the Christmas holiday next month, as well as funding for the annual Shop with a Cop event in Cheyenne.

If you would like to make a monetary contribution to the Gobbler Gang’s savings account, you can do so at the Cheyenne-Laramie County Employees Federal Credit Union on 4523 Driftwood Drive.

Kathryn Palmer is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s education reporter. She can be reached at kpalmer@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter at @kathrynbpalmer.

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