Food & DrinkFood Features

Athens Steps Up to Feed the Needy on Thanksgiving

If you ever doubt that need in Athens is robust, spend an afternoon in the Community Connection office (where, full disclosure, I happen to work), preferably seated next to 211 Information and Referral operator Martha Scott. A few weeks ago, our mid-November cold snap had her phone ringing off the hook. She took the calls in a chipper tone—“Well you’re a young chicken, now, aren’t you lucky?”—but every few hours, having hung up after a particularly difficult conversation with yet another person seeking shelter for the cold months, she’d throw up her hands and cry “Homeless, homeless, homeless! Everyone calling today is homeless, and we just don’t have the resources for all of them.” 

It’s a chorus we hear sung year-round, that Athens has a homelessness—and, in a broader sense, poverty—problem too big for our current systems to handle. But one thing we always seem to find the resources for is a community-wide push to provide the needy with a hot Thanksgiving supper. And this year is no different.

Emmanuel Episcopal Church at 498 Prince Ave. is partnering this year with Campus View Church of Christ to provide a meal from 11 a.m.–2 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. The churches are currently seeking food donations to help them accommodate a crowd of nearly 600. They’re also taking donations of coats, hats, scarves and gloves to give to those who need protection against the elements this winter.

“We get a list from the [Athens] Housing Authority of anyone who might be shut-ins,” says Dee Forester, who is coordinating the Thanksgiving meal for Emanuel this year. “We take meals to them if they can’t come to us.”

Emmanuel’s program started a decade and a half ago, according to Forester. “Lena Watkins started feeding the homeless out of the trunk of her car, and she came and asked to use our kitchen.” The program has grown since then, thanks to the work of Watkins and the core group of volunteers who have carried the tradition forward since her passing a few years ago. Last year, by Forester’s count, they served 548 people.

The Salvation Army, at 484 Hawthorne Ave., also has a program to feed those in need of a turkey dinner this week. Their meal starts at 5 p.m., and volunteer coordinator Joe Bottoms is looking forward to a new experience. “This is my first time doing it,” he says.

Perhaps the most surprising addition to this list is an organization with a mission that’s neither religious nor charitable—Five Bar, located on the corner of Hull and Clayton streets downtown. “Our mother restaurant in Destin, FL, has been doing this for about 20 years,” says general manager Dane Henderson. “Our majority owner, Charles Morgan, thought we should provide a free meal on a public holiday. It’s become a community bonding experience.” 

Henderson, who says this is Five Bar Athens’ first year offering the holiday service, describes the event with real excitement in his voice. From 11 a.m.–3 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, anyone in need of a meal can come to the restaurant and enjoy a plate of turkey, ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans, yeast rolls and pie. The restaurant, with a big assist from some professional cooks overseeing the kitchen, will be staffed by volunteers, who’ll get to try out life as a service industry grunt in the name of taking care of their neighbors.

“In Destin last year, they served about 1,600 plates,” Henderson says, noting that he anticipates the Athens location will serve about half that this year.

Not all Thanksgiving dinners are on Thanksgiving. At Timothy Baptist Church at 380 Timothy Road, the giving started early in the week, with their meal offered from 10 a.m.–12 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 22. 

“We pick people up from shelters,” says Elishiba Hunter, executive assistant to the church’s pastor. “Instead of making them stand in line, we seat them and give them menus and take their order.”

In addition to the meal, the church also offers clothing, toiletries, health screenings, haircuts, showers and bus passes to those who join them for Thanksgiving dinner. All told, they serve about 300 people, an exercise they’ll repeat in the spring in honor of Good Friday.

Other churches, including East Friendship Baptist and First United Methodist, also offer free Thanksgiving meals but did not respond to requests for more information. Check back for updates.

At times like this, when giving is on everyone’s mind, it’s heartening to see the generosity of the local community grow robust enough to meet the demand for giving. All told, these and other Thanksgiving dinner programs will serve thousands in Athens who can’t afford a Thanksgiving feast for themselves and their families. If we can find a way to celebrate this charitable spirit and stretch it out over the course of the winter, who knows how many more cold nights and empty bellies we may relieve?