The Great Gadsden Bake Off contestants laugh while listening to judges critique their cookies. Alex Gibson/CinePros.
By Chris McCarthy and Katie Bohannon
While charitable acts emerge as year-round endeavors, the holiday season – and the Christmas season in particular – serves as a time to take stock of blessings received and reflect inward, asking ourselves if we are truly are our neighbor’s keeper.
During this time of the year, the staff at The Messenger in Gadsden constantly hear about – and many times write about – small of acts kindness by folks in their local community. In some cases, these Good Samaritans do not wish to receive recognition for their generosity, such as putting a Christmas turkey on a family’s table or filling out a young child’s Santa list.
These anonymous benefactors inspired The Messenger staff to walk in those benevolent footsteps and become philanthropists themselves, rather than just write about them. Coined “The Good News Newspaper,” The Messenger believes in the importance of investing in its community and recognizing those who go above and beyond to make Etowah County a better place.
This belief manifested in The Messenger’s first ever major non-profit fundraising event – The Great Gadsden Bake Off – a filmed baking competition featuring 12 contestants paired into teams of six, with each team representing a non-profit in Etowah County. The Messenger debuted the baking competition’s episode at its Premiere Party in December of 2021, with proceeds from ticket sales given to the competition’s winner and sponsorship funds donated to the remaining five organizations, so no non-profit went without a contribution.
“Starting with a long list of deserving local non-profit organizations, we narrowed it down to six,” said The Messenger publisher Chris McCarthy. “That was the ‘easy’ part. The difficult part was figuring out how to raise money for these six worthy organizations. After much discussion, our news editor, Katie Bohannon, came up with the idea of holding a filmed celebrity bake-off competition in the style of a popular television cooking show and hosting a subsequent viewing party as a fundraiser for the selected non-profits.”
The Messenger worked closely alongside professionals in the film industry to capture the baking competition and formulate hours of footage into a cohesive episode. Media experts Alex Gibson, Jennifer Gibson, Lance Kozack and Josh Parker from Huntsville-based production company CinePros traveled to Current Market & Deli – an up-and-coming restaurant housed at River Rocks Landing in Gadsden – in early November for a full day of shooting.
“When we were asked to film a baking competition I admit I was both excited and a bit nervous, as we had mere weeks to make this happen,” said Alex Gibson. “With The Messenger’s help along with the participation of community leaders, we pulled off an event that was fun, insightful and beneficial to half a dozen well-deserving non-profit groups. I’d do this again in a heartbeat.”
The non-profits represented in The Great Gadsden Bake Off were Dre Kirkpatrick’s 21 Kids Foundation, Breakaway Ministries, The James M. Barrie Center, Etowah Sheriff’s Charities, Family Success Center and The YMCA of Coosa Valley. Each of these non-profits affects individuals across all municipalities and districts of Etowah County.
Dre Kirkpatrick’s 21 Kids Foundation serves as a vehicle for disadvantaged youth by providing resources and opportunities through education and mentorship programs to ensure healthier lifestyles. Since its inception, the foundation has affected lives in Gadsden by providing educational enrichment, shopping sprees and free youth football and cheer camps, which focus on proper techniques and safety.
In that same vein, one aspect of Breakaway Ministries is its Dream Center, a passion of founder Eddie Nichols that embodies the organization’s mission. As a safe place for the at-risk youth of Etowah County to go for recreation, mentoring, education, tutoring and growing in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Dream Center emerges as a resource for children and families community-wide.
Carried out by Etowah County Sheriff’s Office employees, Etowah Sheriff’s Charities strengthens, supports and enhances citizens and organizations in Etowah County, making a positive difference in the community. Each year, Etowah Sheriff’s Charities aids economically disadvantaged children during Christmastime through its S.O. Christmas Cheer Program.
A non-profit organization that offers comprehensive and coordinated services, Family Success Center garners families throughout Etowah County the opportunity to make positive changes in their lives. Its mission centers on strengthening families to become financially stable, emotionally healthy and nonviolent.
Through connecting people of all ages and backgrounds, The YMCA bridges gaps in community needs and nurtures potential, believing that all citizens should be given the opportunity to learn, grow and thrive. The Y offers several programs including summer camps and youth programs, promoting healthy choices and inspiring communities to come together for the common good.
Pillars of Etowah County served as both contestants and judges for the episode, with elected officials, business owners and educators alike volunteering their time to a cause they deemed worthy. Contestants baked a Christmas classic from scratch – gingerbread cookies – and watched as judges blindly determined the winning batch according to taste and presentation.
Contestants included Gadsden City Councilman Jason Wilson and Etowah County Commissioner Jeffery Washington (who represented 21 Kids Foundation), Family Savings Credit Union employees Ashleigh Barkley and Jessica Brown (who represented Breakaway Ministries), Gadsden City Schools Superintendent Tony Reddick and Dana Snyder (who represented The Barrie Center), Etowah County Commissioner Jamie Grant and Modern Woodmen of America’s Morgan Lavender (who represented Etowah Sheriff’s Charities), The Joint Chiropractic Gadsden owner Kip Rapp and Family Success Center Executive Director Emma Clapp (who represented Family Success Center) and The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County’s Will Mackey and CED Mental Health’s Jocelyn Woolfork (who represented The YMCA).
Judges were Scoop Du Jour Creamery & Desserts’ owner Tanita Amegble, Etowah County Probate Judge Scott Hassell and current Chamber President and CEO Christi Robinson. From the bake off’s inception, individuals and businesses community-wide overwhelmed the project with positive feedback, assisting The Messenger in aiding others and eager to help however possible. Robinson, who also co-owns Current Market & Deli, provided the space for filming, while Jamie Grant donated ingredients from local grocery store Lil’ Burtons.
“The Great Gadsden Bake Off was a great opportunity to raise money for six wonderful non-profits and give back to our community,” said Grant, noting that the competition was a fun and memorable experience. “I had a blast participating!”
Sponsorships flooded in alongside ticket sales for the episode’s Premiere Party, which debuted on Friday, December 3, 2021 at The Venue at Coosa Landing in Gadsden. The community response was extraordinary, with almost 200 people attending in-person and thousands engaging with the fundraiser on social media. Following the episode viewing, The Messenger staff presented each non-profit with their donations raised from Bake Off sponsorships and ticket sales.
At the Premiere Party, The Messenger officially announced the winning non-profit of the inaugural The Great Gadsden Bake Off: Family Success Center. With the proceeds received from The Great Gadsden Bake Off, Family Success Center sponsored five families for the holidays, including toys, clothing and food. The center also purchased food for its food pantry, that ministers to Etowah County’s homeless population and feeds on average 50 people per week.
“Being a part of the first Gadsden Bake-Off was exhilarating! I had so much fun being surrounded by amazing folks, but also playing for great organizations,” said Family Success Center Executive Director Emma Clapp, who accepted the award for the center along with her team partner, Kip Rapp. “I was shocked to win, given that our cookies were described as a crime scene. We like to call it the ‘Christmas Party gone wrong.’ But the proceeds went to assisting families for the holidays, and we were grateful to be a part of this new and exciting fundraiser here in Etowah County!”
McCarthy commended his fellow staff at The Messenger for their dedication to the project, which proved a resounding success. He thanked The Messenger owner Craig Ford for his support and shared that above all, the Bake Off remained true to its mission – investing in the community he and his staff call home and uniting with others to make that home a better place.
“In my 11 years as publisher of The Messenger, the Bake Off was by far the most ambitious project we’ve ever attempted, creatively and logistically,” said McCarthy. “But from the day we started contacting the judges and contestants to the Premiere, it was a success. It was unknown territory for us, but we achieved what we set out to do through teamwork, a sense of humor and sheer determination.”
“A good deal of the credit goes to Katie. From lining up the restaurant baking area, to selecting and coordinating the film crew, to writing the script and directing the filming, Katie was beyond outstanding. Also going above and beyond was our Business Manager Teri Chupp and Marketing Director Allison Nessler, who were present at each stage of the project and ensured the competition and Premiere went off without a hitch. They handled a lot of behind-the-scenes duties that were essential to the Bake Off’s success. Their work is indispensable.”
Community members are already inquiring for the second episode of The Great Gadsden Bake Off in the upcoming year. Those interested in watching the 2021 show can view the episode on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ubHY2C89Tx0.