It happened the first time when Jacki Hasty was just a little girl of about 9 or 10.
Her Sunday school teacher at Dawnville United Methodist Church, Bob Groves, asked the class to think about how to help people in the community and share God’s love.
“So I said ‘I think we should feed the homeless,” Hasty said. “I said ‘I think we should feed them for Thanksgiving here at the church.”
That was more than a decade ago. This Thanksgiving, church members and other volunteers served an estimated 806 dinners to people who came to the church building or requested home deliveries — and they weren’t all homeless.
Kathy Godfrey, who has 20 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren, said she and several family members volunteered this year after being blessed with a surprise visit from a church member last year delivering plates. She said a senior citizens’ group she is a member of turned her name in to the church to receive deliveries.
“If I had not participated today, we would have still ate,” she said. “It just made it easier and more affordable. We’re on a fixed income. We can’t get out here every week and go to the store. We go to the store once a month because that’s when our little check comes in.”
Pastor John Merk said this is the largest crowd yet the church has served. While Godfrey said there were many people in attendance who were obviously not financially well-off, church members said Thanksgiving Day eaters don’t have to be in poverty to get the meal.
“Hunger and poverty is such a huge issue over here (in the Dawnville area) that we really don’t get too caught up in trying to identify people as needy or not needy,” Merk said. “We’ve had people show up in really nice cars and come and eat.”
Merk said church members buy the food through a restaurant supply company now. In the early years, they bought and made all the food themselves, right down to the potatoes they mashed in big coolers using paint stirrers and power tools — clean, sterile ones, of course. About half of the 55 volunteers who spent Wednesday evening and Thursday morning preparing and delivering the meals were from the church while the other half were community members or from neighboring churches.
The youngest volunteer was about 7, the oldest around 75.
“It’s just a great thing, and we see people that are both people that are serving and people that receive who feel blessed by it,” Merk said. “It’s just a great thing to be a part of.”
Church member Scott Griffin said those first years of serving the dinners weren’t well-attended for a variety of reasons, perhaps including the fact so few people knew about them then. Now they advertise the event to families at Dawnville and Cedar Ridge elementary schools.
“God weighed it on my heart that we needed to do it again and just have a community Thanksgiving dinner for anyone who wanted to come,” he said. “We send flyers out and whoever wants to can sign up if they want to come to the church. They can pick their plates up at the church, or, if they don’t have transportation, we will take them to them.”
His wife, Nancy, said several staff members of the Family Support Council, a local organization that offers a variety of social services, volunteer. The church is always looking for volunteers and donors.
Except for periods in which she was in college and living out of state, Hasty has made volunteering at the dinner an annual tradition, she said. She said this will likely be her last Thanksgiving to participate in the tradition since she and her fiance plan to move to Florida soon. One Thanksgiving memory in particular stands out in her mind, and she becomes choked with emotion when she tells the story.
“I guess it was a couple of years back when I first moved back, a lady had come, and I didn’t know who she was or anything about her,” Hasty recalled.
She said the woman picked up a few things, hugged her and simply said “thank you.”
“That was probably the greatest hug I have ever received from anybody in my life, period,” Hasty said.
Godfrey said she felt blessed and happy to be able to give back this year by volunteering with the project in addition to receiving from it. Several of her family members, including a daughter who is on a waiting list to receive a kidney transplant, volunteered with her. She saw her own emotions reflected in their eyes — amazement at being offered something so nice for free, at the friendliness of the servers, at the idea they could have something as simple as a refill of sweet tea.
“I think that a lot of people benefits by this,” Godfrey said. “I’m hoping they all appreciate it. I know without a doubt that most of them got blessed. You can just tell when they really need it, and I believe most of these that came today they would have probably ate somewhere, but I don’t think they would have ate as well as we fed them.”
Merk said people who eat the dinners come from a variety of circumstances. Some are homeless and living in tent cities. Some are referred to the church by the Family Support Council. Some are sick and homebound. Some are grieving the loss of a family member who used to be their holiday companion. Some are able to cook but choose to eat the dinner the church provides for other reasons.
For Merk, the reasons people arrive aren’t important.
“The main purpose,” he said of the ministry, “is to share our blessings.”
The church operates a year-round food ministry. For information, call (706) 259-5342.