CommUnity Thanksgiving ministers hope throughout Etowah County

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By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

For 23 years, one annual event has ministered hope throughout Etowah County, generating compassion and goodwill since its first gathering at East Gadsden’s New Liberty Tabernacle of Praise church in 1998.

After a hiatus in 2020 due to COVID-19, CommUnity Thanksgiving of Etowah County returns in November, with its board and volunteers ever-willing to nourish souls alongside stomachs, filling bellies with a delicious holiday meal, hearts with empathy and minds with unforgettable memories of service.

“We never imagined it growing out of the church, really, we thought it was just an idea,” said CommUnity Thanksgiving of Etowah County Board Member Gloria Hope, an original coordinator since the event’s inception. “It ended up being God’s idea. [CommUnity Thanksgiving] brought all the people together from surrounding areas – people from out of town came to be a part of it. When it’s God’s idea, you don’t have to worry about it getting off the ground…it’s going to go.”

CommUnity Thanksgiving remains true to its namesake, granting anyone in the area the opportunity to eat a meal and fellowship with others on Thanksgiving, at zero cost. Created with the sole purpose of serving the community, Etowah County’s CommUnity Thanksgiving sprouted from that initial seed planted at New Liberty Tabernacle of Praise and flourished year after year, blossoming into one of the largest community events in the state (and potentially, nation). New Liberty pastor Reverend Willie Simmons organized the original event with Hope and her sister Annie Guyton, who considered CommUnity Thanksgiving as a memorial to their family and a tribute to their servant-hearted mother, who passed away shortly after it began.

Before long, the event expanded to accommodate its increasing numbers, transferring its location to Donehoo Elementary School for a few years before taking root at Convention Hall. Board Chair Darlene Harcrow, who volunteered early on with the project, recalled when CommUnity Thanksgiving reached 2,000 individuals it fed – an amount participants speculated the event would surpass. In 2019 at The Venue at Coosa Landing, CommUnity Thanksgiving peaked with a record-breaking 6,760 community members fed on the holiday, and this year the board anticipates fulfilling an even greater need.

Returning to The Venue on November 25, CommUnity Thanksgiving’s Board is budgeting meals for 7,000 attendants. Comprised of a collection of compassionate individuals who wholeheartedly believe in CommUnity Thanksgiving’s mission, the board designates several committees to ensure the event operates successfully. Committees responsible for hospitality and décor, entertainment, logistics, clean-up and transportation, prayer, delivery, food and supplies join several other aspects of the months-long preparation period prior to the big day.

After making the difficult decision to cancel last year’s event due to the pandemic, in the hopes of ensuring the health and safety of both guests and volunteers, the CommUnity Thanksgiving committee regrouped. While the event transpired for decades simply at the hands of caring individuals, now the CommUnity Thanksgiving of Etowah County functions as a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, complete with bylaws and an official board of directors.

“I’m really excited that we’re coming back this year,” said Board Member and Gadsden Job Corps Center Business Community Liaison Emily Carter, who fell in love with CommUnity Thanksgiving’s service about five years ago. “I know that 2020 was such a hard year – not just economically, but so many of us lost people. I really think it’s going to be so important for all of us to come back together and renew that sense of community in the face of all that loss.”

“We’re a community, and this gives you a true sense of community,” said Vice Chair and Gadsden Public Library Director Craig Scott. “[Of the board members] there are no muckety-mucks – it’s just regular people trying to do something for the community. I started way back in 2009, when I got out of bed one morning, heard about this and said, ‘This sounds like a pretty good thing to do.’ I got on a serving line, made one plate, then another and another. After that, I decided to put my hand up and ask where I could help. I think a lot of people will get up in the morning like me [and think] maybe I can give back to the community in some small way. Knowing this group [of board members] like I do…every one of them is very giving. It’s just great community service with God behind us…we couldn’t do it without Him.”

Scott shared that this year, CommUnity Thanksgiving hopes for 1,000 volunteers to join in its efforts. Each year, the board strives to raise enough funds to cover CommUnity Thanksgiving’s cost. The entire event runs solely on donations, relying upon generous community members investing in their fellow neighbors. With the price of food surging since the pandemic and the amount of supplies necessary to create each meal, 7,000 plates are equivalent to a minimum of $45,000.

Several elected officials vocalized their support of CommUnity Thanksgiving, following the board’s appearance at the Gadsden City Council and the Etowah County Commission meetings within the past two weeks.

“Our community is really appreciative [of CommUnity Thanksgiving],” said Gadsden City Councilman Thomas Worthy. “There’s a lot of people who would go without a meal on Thanksgiving day, or every day, if it weren’t for people like you [board members and volunteers] feeding people.”

“I’ve witnessed and seen what y’all do, and it’s a massive undertaking,” said Etowah County Commissioner Craig Inzer, Jr.

Inzer expressed his interest in assisting the board with acquiring food for the event, advocating on the committee’s behalf and joining fellow Commissioners Jeffery Washington, Tim Ramsey and Joey Statum in donating thousands of dollars to the cause. Ramsey volunteered to help the day of, while Commissioners Johnny Grant and Jamie Grant echoed the sentiments of the event’s importance, noting the strenuous work required to serve so many people.

“I can tell you from chopping turkey to wrapping pies to delivering meals, our family has been a part of [CommUnity Thanksgiving] for years,” said Jamie Grant. “It’s fantastic.”

While this year’s proposed menu remains ever-evolving due to prices and food availability, the board envisions chicken and dressing, ham (or turkey, depending on funding), green beans, macaroni and cheese, rolls and cake for dessert. Meal preparation unfolds no different than the behind-the-scenes of a restaurant, and as monetary donations ensure the ingredients arrive, when volunteers wake on Monday of Thanksgiving week, the real preparation begins.

Each day of Thanksgiving week, committees accomplish different objectives. From deep cleaning the kitchen, to washing and chopping vegetables, to crafting cornbread stuffing and baking cakes, the efficient assembly-line of volunteers (donning hair nets, aprons and gloves) work tirelessly and without complaint, day-in and day-out.

“It’s kind of like a magnet,” said Treasurer John Minton, who has been involved with CommUnity Thanksgiving alongside his wife, Susan, for the past 14 years. “Once you do it, you’re hooked. [Helping] is so addictive, we’ve had to drag people off the line making plates because they don’t want to stop serving. Thursday morning [Thanksgiving Day], when everyone is tired and you get there at 5 a.m., your whole attitude changes when you walk through those doors.”

“It’s about helping the community and doing what Jesus would want us to do,” said Susan. “To help those who would not have a meal, or be with a group…to be with people who [normally] don’t get to talk to others. Jesus said for us to feed His people, and you can’t preach or save someone on an empty stomach. We fill their stomachs and we show them the love of Jesus.”

CommUnity Thanksgiving distributes meals in three tiers: dine-in, take-out and delivery. Nine take-out meals are available per individual (16 years and older), with larger take-out orders (of 10 and above) available upon request, should churches wish to feed those in their direct community. CommUnity Thanksgiving begins delivering meals at 9 a.m. Thanksgiving morning, opens the doors of The Venue at 10:30 a.m. and serving until food runs out or people cease to arrive. Any remaining meals or drinks are donated so nothing is wasted.

Harcrow and Scott reiterated a key aspect of the event, which shatters divisive barriers and welcomes all to witness how true compassion makes such a positive difference. CommUnity Thanksgiving never turns anyone away, regardless of circumstances.

“It’s about actions,” said Harcrow. “It’s not that we get preachy. When we first took this on, it was about feeding those in need. In my mind, I thought we were going to be feeding people who have nothing. Then, as I began to evolve, God began to show me things. [At CommUnity Thanksgiving] you may have someone who is homeless, but you also may have a little man and woman who don’t have anybody. There are people [of all backgrounds] who need CommUnity Thanksgiving. Whether they’re rich and by themselves or poor and need a meal, it opens that door [to give].”

“CommUnity Thanksgiving is very inclusive,” said Secretary Delores Abney. “It goes beyond anything you could imagine. Diversity is ever present. Politics is not a part of it. It encompasses everybody from every walk of life [either as guests or volunteers]. There are some people who CommUnity Thanksgiving is their annual event…they bring their children and family to come, then after they work, they’ll sit down and eat a meal.”

Harcrow reflected on interactions from previous years, when CommUnity Thanksgiving’s impact proved momentous. She shared a story about a woman who often volunteered time and time again with her husband, until one Thanksgiving, Harcrow noticed she volunteered alone. Harcrow soon learned that the woman’s husband passed away two months prior, but rather than attend her own family’s holiday, she felt drawn to contribute her time to helping others, just as she did as a couple for so many years. As so many local families return year after year, Harcrow’s own family adopted CommUnity Thanksgiving as their holiday tradition, developing generations upon generations of selfless, service-oriented individuals.

“I’ve learned how much we can help each other if we all pull together,” said Carter. “It’s so inspiring to see the community – not just the committee – but all of our volunteers, all of the people that donate to us, all of the churches and schools come to together to fill such an important need. I hope volunteers get a feel for what it is to be a part of a community, and really get to feel that love we have for each other as fellow human beings. [I hope they realize] the way it feels so good just to help people and spread love.”

“This is a way of reaching people and loving them,” said Harcrow. “To know that you walk off and you’ve made somebody smile, you’ve made someone feel love who doesn’t have anyone…that’s a good day when it’s done. Knowing you’ve been those hands and feet of Jesus and given that 100 percent…what you give is received 100-fold in the feeling afterwards.”

As CommUnity Thanksgiving provides physical meals for individuals and families countywide and beyond, its true essence resides in its ministry of hope that enlivens the hearts of all who participate. With each warm meal and bright smile, CommUnity Thanksgiving restores kindness as a powerful influence in the lives of others, inspiring a community enriched with citizens who value and encourage those beside them, loving their neighbors as their own.

“When there is so much dissention in our country, you’ve got to do something to show empathy, concern and compassion,” said Abney. “This brings empathy into your vocabulary, with no other alternative than you’re showing your heart.  When you go into The Venue, there’s such an uplifting feeling among everybody. When people deliver those meals to houses, that’s showing compassion to others. What you’re doing is you’re rebuilding a little bit of what we’ve lost, especially in the past year…you’re rebuilding hope. A lot of people are walking around without hope. There’s been such a lack of togetherness and communication, I think CommUnity Thanksgiving is a good time to give the love of Christ.”

While a website for volunteers is developing, those interested in volunteering for CommUnity Thanksgiving can visit CommUnity Thanksgiving’s Facebook page, call 256-494-1600 or email communitythanksgivingofetowah@gmail.com. Monetary donations (with no amount too small) are being accepted at PO Box 411, Gadsden, AL, 35902.

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