The coronavirus pandemic made everything look and feel different throughout the last year, including the holidays. However, employees of Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Workforce Development & Social Services were still determined to provide as many delicious Thanksgiving meals as possible. The staff expanded the number of families they served with their annual Thanksgiving Food Basket Drive, from 185 to 225.

WDSS Social Services Counselor Shelly Watson called the program that has been running for over 20 years “a glimpse of hope at the holidays.” She led the drive for the first time in 2020 along with Homemaker Services, Safe & Stable Families Counselor Kym Coe. Workforce Development & Social Services Assistant Director Margaret Zientek challenged them with making it bigger than ever before.

Citizen Potawatomi Nation Workforce Development & Social Services staff pack Thanksgiving baskets for more than 200 families.

“Margaret really pushed an increase in baskets because of COVID, and this will really help the families that are in need this year,” Coe said.

Coe and Watson began working with the Tribe at the same time in 2018, and they both remember their first experience boxing and handing out Thanksgiving baskets to families. It fed their desire to lead the drive on their own.

“We really looked forward to the opportunity to work together,” Watson said. “It’s a worthwhile effort for sure. … We’ve bonded together as we’ve grown here, and so we looked at it as a challenge that we would like to be involved in.”

They collected food donations from 11 departments throughout CPN’s enterprises and offices, aiming to provide not only Thanksgiving dinner but also breakfast and another meal for each family. Some departments filled baskets on their own while others purchased bulk items to distribute among all the boxes.

A few enterprises encouraged the public to participate by placing a basket where customers and visitors could contribute, including the FireLake Wellness Center. Bobby and Sue Harjo saw a flyer there and decided to give back to the Tribe. They visit the center regularly and are patients at CPN Health Services. They began giving to the annual drive four years ago after moving to Oklahoma from Dallas, Texas.

Workforce Development & Social Services collected 2,742 pounds of food from the 11 departments that participated. They handed out baskets on Nov. 19 and 20.

“For me, seeing the community come together and serve these families is a blessing. Many of the families are so excited; some of them in tears because they are receiving this basket. To get to be a part of that is so rewarding,” Coe said.

The department that donates the most pounds per employee won a gift card; however, Watson believes it meant more than that to everyone participating.

“I’ve had Tribal employees call me and say, ‘God has really placed it on my heart this year to donate in bulk. How can I help?’ So, people do it out of the goodness of their heart. But we do have some competitive people here also, and they want the bragging rights. So more power to them,” she said and laughed.

As a Tribal member and descendant of the Curley family, Watson started working for CPN in 2018 but never knew about all the services the Nation offered, especially those available through Workforce Development & Social Services. She has grown by learning and providing to others as part of her job.

In 2020, she and Coe continued the department’s partnerships with other organizations and businesses in the larger community such as Shawnee Milling Company, which helped feed 40 more families than usual. They hope to expand the drive further.

“This is our first year. So next year, we will learn from the mistakes that we made and be able to reach out to more people to help. Our hope is to serve more families,” Watson said.

For more information about CPN’s Workforce Development & Social Services programs, visit