There’s not much competition for the title of largest and most appreciated Thanksgiving dinner in Johnston County.
What began in 2010 as a meal that drew 500 has mushroomed into a feast for more than 3,000 of the county’s neediest residents.
For six years now, Serve the Need in Johnston County and a host of other community groups have joined forces to feed a traditional Thanksgiving meal to around 10,000 people. This past Wednesday, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., a line moved steadily through the Clayton Civitan Club building and often out the door, bringing together people from across Johnston County.
“In 2009, a woman called me and said she was looking for somewhere to volunteer for Thanksgiving,” recalled Norwood Williams, Serve the Need’s founder and coordinator of the holiday meal. “There was no such thing. Not one church was doing a meal.”
Williams partnered with Clayton Area Ministries, churches and businesses and in one year held the community’s first Thanksgiving meal.
“It’s getting bigger and better every year,” he said.
Butterball, Zaxby’s and Clayton Steakhouse donate and cook the food for the meal, which includes sweet potatoes pulled from a local field. Volunteers bake the desserts and serve visitors on the day of the meal.
Current Serve the Need president Jerry Dodson said one aim of the event is to give people a chance to enjoy a meal with their neighbors.
“It’s just a good time with good fellowship,” Dodson said. “A lot of people won’t be eating tomorrow, or will be eating alone. We just want to reach out to them and do something for them during this time of the year.”
Even with the event growing from year to year, Dodson feels Serve the Need can do even more. He said he knows of shut-ins who are unable to get to the meal, and hunger remains widespread in Johnston even though the recession ended years ago. Food left over from Wednesday’s lunch went to Micro, Kenly and Four Oaks to feed more families.
“We’re really touching the tip of the iceberg,” Dodson said. “There are a lot of people we’re not reaching, that maybe don’t know about this or aren’t able to get here. It’s great that so many are coming, but the more that come, the more people we know are hungry in our community.”
Stephanie Pena of Serve the Need said the stigma of a free meal keeps some people away. “We know there are people in the dark, struggling, but we want to pull them in and let them know it’s OK, we’ve all been there,” Pena said. “Cooking a traditional Thanksgiving meal is what, $100? Some people can’t spend that on one meal; they have to use it for a full week’s groceries.”
Darrell Williams has been to all five Thanksgiving meals and brought his grandsons and daughter this year.
“The food is really good; this is a real nice thing they’re doing,” Williams said. “It’s especially good for the elderly people. God is so good. Everyone doing this for the neighborhood, it’s hard to imagine how many people need it.”
Carla Gaskins of Smithfield said she heard about the event through a food pantry and brought her family for the first time.
“We wanted to have a nice meal together,” she said.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson