Photo: Volunteers prepare food for CommUnity Thanksgiving during last year’s event at The Venue at Coosa Landing. (Courtesy of CommUnity Thanksgiving)
By Emma Kirkemier, News Editor
CommUnity Thanksgiving of Etowah County will host its 23rd annual event at The Venue at Coosa Landing on Thanksgiving, November 24.
The event, which offers a free meal to each attendee, is the largest Thanksgiving gathering in the state of Alabama. Volunteers served over 8,700 plates at last year’s event.
“Volunteers have of course multiplied,” said Darlene Harcrow, chairperson of the CommUnity Thanksgiving Boad of Directors. “Last year we worked with about 1,000 volunteers. And every year, we’re able to go and we take delivery. We take food out to our shut-ins, to our elderly, to our people who are just disabled and can’t come.”
CommUnity Thanksgiving offers three different options when it comes to enjoying a Thanksgiving meal: dine-in, take-out and delivery.
“We also have a to-go section, where you can come get a plate and take it back to your home,” Harcrow said. “And then we also have the dine-in option, where you come into The Venue, you sit down and we have families who will serve you a meal and a drink. People will talk to you and love on you and just make sure that you’re getting a warm welcome and having a family kind of gathering on that holiday.”
According to Harcrow, the board tries to accommodate the needs of each family or individual in this way. For example, some elderly participants have their meals delivered and invite family to their home to spend time together. The volunteers conducting the event can also use it as opportunity for family time, however.
“CommUnity Thanksgiving can’t happen in one day,” said Gadsden Public Library Director Craig Scott.
Families are encouraged to volunteer together, he said, and even children can participate in the “assembly line” filling to-go and delivery plates. Harcrow first got her start in the organization when she and her children began volunteering through United Way in 1999.
The board of directors — which includes Harcrow and Scott, as well as Delores Abney, Gloria Hope, Annie Guyton, John Minton and Dale Denham — plans the event all year, but things kick into high gear on the week of Thanksgiving.
“On Monday we cook cornbread and cook chicken, and we get it cleaned,” Harcrow said. “Tuesday, we start dicing, tearing chicken off of bones and crumbling cornbread. We also have some deliveries that we pick up. Then, Wednesday, we start making the dressing and getting our final touches on everything that needs to be ready. We cook about 150 lbs of dressing, usually on Wednesday, and get it ready for the 350 lbs total that we have to cook. That kind of breaks it down so that we don’t have quite as many to cook on Thursday.”
Volunteer hours that week are 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Wednesday and on Thursday, roughly 5 a.m. – 2 p.m. The menu for this year’s meal includes chicken and dressing, ham, green beans, mac n’ cheese and cake.
All of this adds up to a total budget of about $35,000, all of which is donated by the community, local organizations and municipalities.
“Every bit of funds that comes in goes to feed the people,” Harcrow said. “We do not have any overhead or administrative costs or anything like that. Everything is strictly feeding the people on Thanksgiving Day.”
Scott explained that any extra money received instantly rolls over to the next year’s budget.
“Originally, like Darlene mentioned earlier, it was intended for low- and no-income folks, but right now whoever walks in the door can get a meal or take a meal out, or we will go and deliver it,” Scott said.
The event saw a spike in attendance at last year’s gathering following a year without one due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What we found out was that not only were there people who needed a meal because of financial (reasons), there were also people who needed a family to spend time with on Thanksgiving Day,” Harcrow said. “Too many people were alone, and so it helps us to be able, then, to bring people into that CommUnity Thanksgiving and give them a family environment.”