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Mesa woman who went viral for 2016 Thanksgiving celebration holds first one without husband

A Mesa family who stole everyone’s hearts when their Thanksgiving celebration went viral in 2016 had to celebrate this year's dinner with an empty seat.

MESA, Ariz. — A Mesa family who stole everyone’s hearts when their Thanksgiving celebration went viral in 2016 had an empty seat at this year’s dinner. 

With COVID-19 taking more than 6,400 lives in Arizona as of Sunday, they aren’t alone.

For the last four years, Wanda Dench and Jamal Hinton have spent their Thanksgivings together, with Wanda’s husband Lonnie and Hinton’s girlfriend Mikaela. 

But this year, Lonnie wasn't there. He died of COVID-19 in April.

“It will be very sad… but with friends and family around it will be OK,” Wanda said through tears.

This year, the Thanksgiving dinner was much smaller because of the pandemic, but Jamal was there to help lift Wanda’s spirits.

Credit: Jamal Hinton

“I think of the memories we have," Hinton said.

Wanda and Hinton met when Wanda sent a text to Hinton by mistake. In it, she invited him to Thanksgiving. 

When she sent him a picture it became clear that it wasn’t his grandma. But she invited him to Thanksgiving anyways and a new tradition started.

This year, they fondly remembered Lonnie.

“He adored Jamal and Mikaela,” Wanda said.

Lonnie’s funeral was on Oct. 15. He was buried at the National Cemetery in Phoenix. 

Wanda has waited for COVID-19 mandates to allow for friends and family to come to say goodbye.

“Everyone’s lives have been impacted because of this, but we will go forward not backwards,” says Wanda.

Their story continues to serve as a reminder that friends and family should be cherished, and that there is always room for more at the table.

“You never know what God has planned for you,” says Hinton.