The day before Thanksgiving was Harvey Jenkins’ birthday, and he wore a bright royal-blue suit and a black cap pulled down low, not menacing but cool.
As he went through the line at the annual Serve the Need Thanksgiving meal in Clayton, his age ranged from 32 to 52, depending on the telling. He polished off a piece of pumpkin pie for dessert and, like several hundred others, went home with a full stomach.
A meal, even a good one, doesn’t guarantee another, but for six years now, Serve the Need in Johnston County has given the neediest in the county something to count on for Thanksgiving.
Each year, the Civitan building in Clayton welcomes busloads of adults from nursing homes and rehab facilities, families whose children receive free or reduced-price school lunches, and anyone for whom Thanksgiving is a hardship and might otherwise pass unnoticed. About 400 volunteers cook and serve the traditional Thanksgiving spread: turkey, ham, stuffing and the like. With a table covered in desserts, they offer the simple extravagance of choosing between cake or pie.
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“This is the happiness of Thanksgiving in Clayton,” said Stephanie Pena of Serve the Need. “I wish that everyone could see this. It’s all about loving your neighbor.”
Event founder Norwood Williams said the annual Thanksgiving meal began in 2009 when a woman new to the area couldn’t find a place to volunteer around the holiday. The first meal served 400 people, but since then, Williams said, the organization has served more than 10,000 meals in six years.
For Williams, the meal is a one-day gesture, but he hopes bringing people together might lead to a larger understanding and connection within the community.
“A lot of people want to come in and volunteer, and I say, I don’t want you to have to cook anything, but I want you to sit down with these folks and talk to them and welcome them for lunch,” Williams said.
The food is donated by Butterball, Clayton Steakhouse and Zaxby’s and cooked in the kitchen of the Civitan building. Clayton Councilman Michael Grannis, who owns Clayton Steakhouse, said he was in the kitchen at 5 a.m. Wednesday to help prepare the meal. He said he and his wife Betsy have volunteered each year the meal has been held and will be involved for many years to come.
“I’m very happy for this opportunity, and I’m also very sad,” Grannis said. “The happiness is to be able to do this for the people who are in need, and I’m really grateful I have the opportunity to do it. The sadness comes from wishing I didn’t have to do it, because if I didn’t, that means everyone is able to provide for themselves.”
People were served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then another meal was held from 5 to 7 p.m. at First Baptist Church in Clayton. Pena said the two meals helped thin the crowd for lunch but that service was steady. At 11 a.m., when the doors opened, more than 100 meals were picked up curbside in the first 15 minutes to be delivered to people out in the county. Deliveries went on throughout the day, as volunteers continued to serve others in person.
“Everyone wants to tell me how grateful they are that we do this every year; it brings warmth to your heart to hear that,” Pena said.
Throughout the meal, Pena said, she heard stories of the struggles that led many to the lunch and said she tried to comfort.
“Some people are losing their jobs, not being able to provide their child the traditional Thanksgiving meal, being embarrassed to come,” Pena said. “So as soon as I talk to them, I let them know that we all go through struggles and that it’s OK. That’s what we’re here for; we’re neighbors. This is a humble place; this is a place for fellowship, neighborly love and community. We live in a great community, I have to say.”
The love seems to go around. On her way out, Josie Garner grabbed a volunteer’s arm just to offer a word of thanks.
“Really, we appreciate it,” Garner said. “This was very beautiful, what you’re doing. This was very thoughtful.”